NEW YORK (AP) — One day in January, a former regular at the Fuel Training Studio in Newburyport, Mass., stopped by to take a “shred” class. She hasn’t set foot in a gym since before the pandemic.
The customer told owners Julie Bokat and Jeanne Carter that she had been exercising at home alone in her basement, but had slowly become less active, sometimes working out in her pajamas without breaking a sweat.
“I got tired of what I was doing, so here I am,” Bocat quoted her as saying. She hears similar comments from customers who return after more than two years of exercising in their basements or converted home offices.
During the “dark days” of the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, Bocarter and Carter moved equipment outdoors, holding classes in parking lots and in the greenhouses they built for the winter. They are still taking classes online, but attendance is still down 70%. They are not sure whether the business will survive.
They are not alone. Gyms and fitness studios have been among the hardest-hit industries during the pandemic, hit by lockdowns that then limited the number of people they were allowed to attend classes and exercise. Unlike bars, restaurants and live performance venues, health clubs do not have industry-specific federal aid. According to the National Health and Fitness Federation, an industry group, 25% of U.S. health clubs and studios have closed permanently since the pandemic began.
For gyms that have weathered the worst, signs of stabilization are emerging. So far in January, fitness studio traffic is still down about 3% from 2019, but up 40% from 2021, according to Placer.ai, which tracks retail foot traffic.
At Fuel Training, the greenhouse is gone, as are the spinning classes in the parking lot. Attendance is still down about 35 percent compared to 2019, but Bokat and Carter say more people are showing up every day. Gym-goers say they miss the sense of community a gym can provide.
“I’m pretty sure that if we sustain our community through the darkest of days, it can only go up from there, and it did,” Bokat said.
To attract customers during the pandemic, many gyms and fitness studios have had to quickly diversify their offerings — changes some say are so effective they’re permanent.
Guy Codio, who owns NYC Personal Training Gym in New York, went from nine trainers to four during the pandemic and had to turn to online training sessions. In 2021, he moved to another space with lower rents and began renting space to others in the health and wellness industry, including physical therapists and massage therapists.
“Everyone is worried during COVID, so we just have to de-escalate a little bit,” he said. “We had to change the paradigm to be successful – almost a step back and a step forward.”
Now, he’s back with six trainers, but plans to keep his new business model of renting out space to hedge his bets in case of another downturn.
In his new space, Codio is limiting the number of people on the floor to 10 or 12 people so clients can feel more comfortable COVID-wise. But he said most of the customers he sees are “out of COVID” and aren’t as worried about getting sick as they used to be.
“If anyone is concerned, we will take steps, we do have masks, or we will wear them at different times when there are fewer people,” he said.
For Jessica Benhaim of Lumos Yoga & Barre in Philadelphia, some changes in the pandemic have led to a boom in business. Not only has she returned to her pre-pandemic attendance, but she recently opened a second location.
Demand returns to normal in the summer of 2022, Benhaim said. She raised the price of casual classes by $5 to $25 to offset higher costs for staff wages and cleaning supplies, but she said that hasn’t deterred customers.
Benhaim credits two pandemic changes that helped demand recover: outdoor classes and limited class sizes. She started outdoor classes at a nearby community garden from April to October out of necessity during the pandemic, but has no plans to stop them now.
“People just love being outside, especially in the spring when the weather is nice, even in the heat of summer,” she said.
Class caps remain at 12, down from 18 before the pandemic. She offsets the reduction by offering more classes at her two studios.
“I think it just gives everyone a little more space, like a few extra inches between the cushions, and people really appreciate that.”
When the pandemic first hit, Vincent Micheli, owner of Body Blueprint Gym in Pelham, N.Y., predicted that 30 percent of his clients would not return. He underestimated.
Miceli believes about 30 percent of his members left Pelham, a bedroom community near New York City, and moved elsewhere. Another 30 percent changed their habits and stopped exercising entirely.
Now, he’s seeing slow growth, similar to pre-pandemic levels, or about 5% a month, as workouts at home lose their luster. He still has about 35% fewer clients than he did in February 2020. Most of the new clients, he says, are people who haven’t exercised before.
“It gave us a whole new kind of business lifeline,” he said. Personal training is booming — up 60%. And he’s focusing on fewer classes better suited to his current clientele, such as a strength and conditioning class called Strength for Women 40 and older.
He said people’s interest in health overshadowed their fear of getting sick at the gym.
“I do think that the severity of illness in people who have been unfit over the past few years also makes it more concerning to those who haven’t done any fitness,” he said.
Miceli’s business has recovered to the point where he is ready to start opening other outlets.
“I don’t think in-person fitness will ever go away,” he said.