One day in January, a customer who was once a regular at Fuel Training Studio in Newburyport, Massachusetts, stopped in to take a “sredta” class. She hasn’t set foot in the gym since before the pandemic.
The customer told owners Julie Bokat and Jeanne Carter that she was working out at home alone in her basement but was less motivated and sometimes working out in pajamas without breaking a sweat.
“I was getting bored of what I was doing, so here I am,” Bokat quoted her as saying. She has heard similar comments from customers who have returned after more than two years of working out of a basement or renovated home office.
During the “dark days” of the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, Bokat and Carter moved equipment outside to hold classes in parking lots and greenhouses they built for the winter. They also held online classes, but attendance still dropped by 70%. They weren’t sure the business would survive.
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They were not alone. Gyms and fitness studios were among the hardest hit businesses during the pandemic, which were hit by lockdowns and then limits on the number of people they could allow in for classes and workouts. Unlike bars, restaurants and live venues, health clubs have not received any industry-specific federal assistance. Twenty-five percent of U.S. health clubs and studios have closed permanently since the pandemic began, according to the National Health & Fitness Association, an industry group.
For gyms that did the worst, there are signs of stabilization. Foot traffic in fitness studios rose about 32% for the first two weeks of January 2023, compared to 2022, according to the latest data from Placer.ai, which tracks retail foot traffic.
At Breosla Training, the greenhouse is gone, as are the spin classes in the parking lot. Attendance is still down about 35% from 2019, but Bokat and Carter say more people are coming in every day. Gym goers say they will miss the sense of community that a gym can provide.
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“I think that man is quite positive, if we nurtured our community like the darkest days, it can’t go up from there, and it is,” said Bokat.
Many gyms and fitness studios have had to quickly diversify their offerings to attract customers during the pandemic — and some say those changes have worked so well, they’re permanent.
Guy Codio, who owns the NYC Personal Training Gym in New York, went from nine to four trainers during the pandemic and had to contend with online training sessions. In 2021, he moved to a different space with lower rent and began renting space to others in the health and wellness industry including physical therapists and massage therapists.
“Everyone was worried during COVID, so we just have to downgrade a little bit,” he said. “We had to change the model to succeed — almost take a step back, to take another step forward.”
Now, he has six trainers back, but plans to keep the new business model of renting out space to hedge his bets in case of another downturn.
In his new space, Codio limits people on the floor to 10 or 12 so customers feel more comfortable COVID-wise. But most of the customers he sees are “over COVID,” and aren’t as worried about getting sick as they used to be, he says.
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“If someone is concerned there are measures we take, we have masks or we have them inside during different hours when there are fewer people,” he said.
For Jessica Benhaim of Lumos Yoga & Barre in Philadelphia, business is booming because of some pandemic changes. Not only is she back to pre-pandemic attendance levels, she recently opened a second location.
Demand returned to normal in the summer of 2022, Benhaim said. She raised the price for a drop-in class from $5 to $25 to offset higher costs for employee wages and cleaning supplies, but she says that hasn’t deterred customers.
Benhaim credits two pandemic changes that are helping demand recover: outdoor classes and limited class size. She started outdoor classes from April to October during the pandemic in a nearby community garden out of necessity, but now has no plans to stop them.
“People love to be outside, especially when it’s really nice in the spring, even in the summer when it’s hot,” she said.
Classes are still limited to 12, down from 18 pre-pandemic. She offsets the decline by offering more classes in her two studios.
“I think it gives everybody a little bit more space because, you know, just a few extra inches between mats, people really appreciate that.”
When the pandemic first hit, Vincent Miceli, owner of Body Blueprint Gym in Pelham, NY, expected that 30% of his clients would not return. He underestimated.
Miceli estimates that about 30% of its members left Pelham, a bedroom community near New York City, and moved elsewhere. Another 30% changed their habits and stopped working out altogether.
Now, it’s seeing slow growth, similar to pre-pandemic levels, of about 5% month-on-month as working out at home loses its luster. It’s still down about 35% by client from where it was in February 2020. Most new customers are people who haven’t worked out before, he said.
“That gives us a whole new life of business,” he said. Personal training is booming – up 60%. And he’s focusing on smaller classes more tailored to his existing clients, like a strength and conditioning class called “Strength in Numbers” for women 40 and older.
He says that people’s interest in being healthy is making them afraid of getting sick in the gym.
“I think the intensity with which unhealthy people have gotten sick in recent years is allowing people who haven’t done any exercise to pay more attention to it,” he said.
Miceli’s business has recovered to the point where he is ready to start opening other locations.
“I think personal fitness will never go away,” he said.