Are Fitness Buffs Going Back to the Gym?

Alonzo Osche

The 5:30 a.m. alarm to hit the spin class. The interminable waits for the ab-crunch machine. The masses of sweating bodies huffing and puffing just feet away, followed by the hurried shower and the wet-haired hustle to the office before the boss arrives.

America’s gym habit always involved its share of hassle and expense. And then came the pandemic.

So what now? As the world reopens — or at least, we hope it does — a wounded health club industry is banking on pent-up demand to drive a gym renaissance. Will this happen? Or will workout warriors, after a year exploring virtual and outdoor alternatives, come to see their old gyms as fitness anachronisms, like a Richard Simmons “Disco Sweat” workout VHS from the Clinton years?

Consider Henry Lihn, 40, a tech entrepreneur in Manhattan. Before the pandemic, he would hit an Equinox gym in SoHo or Greenwich Village at least four mornings a week to lift weights, box or do yoga.

He wouldn’t dream of it now. “The gym is a raging dumpster fire of Covid bacteria and hamster wheels,” Mr. Lihn said. “I’m never going back.”

Instead, Mr. Lihn has adopted a socially-distanced outdoor regimen: he bikes the West Side Highway twice a day, plays tennis on public courts in Brooklyn, and does chin-ups on walk-signal cross bars. The wind in his face, the sun on his cheeks, he is hooked. A few weeks ago, he canceled his gym membership.

The uncertainties around the Delta variant have not encouraged some former group exercisers. “I have zero interest in going back to the yoga studio,” said Heidi Kim, 33, a tech consultant in Los Angeles, which recently reinstated mandatory masks for indoor public spaces. “Of the many things I want to do indoors, sweating with strangers is not high on the list.”

Instead Ms. Kim now stays in shape with outdoor distance runs and muscle toning courses on the fitness site, the Sculpt Society.

Others have come to believe that they no longer need to pay as much as $200 or higher per month to exercise when they could invest in a few pieces of home equipment and get the same results.

“Working out at home with Beachbody on Demand and free workouts from Instagram influencers have worked really well for me,” said Danielle DeBoe Harper, 44, a creative director for a home fixtures company in Cleveland. “So for now, at least, my budget priorities no longer include a line item for a gym membership.”

Plus, there is the added convenience of not having to spend time traveling back and forth to the gym, changing into workout clothes and then showering — which can take as much time as the workout itself.

Others have found that the sense of community and socializing they found in a fitness club can be easily replicated outside it.

After his Equinox branch closed, Harry Santa-Olalla, 34, an auctioneer who lives in the Dumbo neighborhood of Brooklyn, formed a fitness pod last summer to sweat through hill sprints and burpees with a few friends, including the “Games of Thrones” actor Kit Harington.

Working out in this tight-knit crew, they were able to motivate each other and help keep each other grounded in a difficult time.“Two more guys joined today,” Mr. Santa-Olalla said. “They’re coming along to a barbecue I’m hosting tomorrow on my roof. That would have never happened in a gym.”

That sense of camaraderie can also be found at home, with group spinning classes on Peloton and personal trainers on Zoom.

“From the first day I owned the Peloton, I rode every day for 4 months straight,” said Amy Lin, 32, an elementary schoolteacher in Calgary, Alberta, who ditched her pricey gym and personal trainer for a Peloton group called Lonely Bikes Club.

In a year filled with isolation, fear and, in her case, grief (her husband died last year of a non-Covid related illness), her new routine gave her a sense of belonging. “Because of this fancy bike that goes nowhere,” Ms. Lin said, “I have somehow kept going on.”

Another pandemic fitness hack — the Zoom personal trainer — has retained its appeal, even after gyms reopened. “People love it,” said Michael Gabryszewski, 26, a personal trainer in Rhinebeck, N.Y. “It eliminates the commute, which is a big barrier to fitness. So instead of doing one session a week, you can do four or five, because it doesn’t take too much time out of your schedule.”

Virtual gyms and trainers appear to have staying power. According to a recent McKinsey & Company survey, 70 percent of people who used online fitness programs during the pandemic plan to stick with them long-term.

All of this may seem ominous for the future of gyms, which have been a fixture in American culture at least since John Travolta was wearing short shorts and grinding in aerobics classes in the 1983 movie, “Perfect.”

Some 22 percent of the nation’s fitness facilities closed permanently during the pandemic, according to IHRSA, the Global Health & Fitness Association, with 1.5 million industry employees losing their jobs since the beginning of the pandemic.

“Being shut down for six months was clearly a very dark time,” said Todd Magazine, the chief executive of Blink Fitness, a national chain of affordable health clubs that endured furloughs and layoffs. “We’re predominantly a brick and mortar business.”

But there are reasons for optimism, too. Plenty of Lycra-clad sweat obsessives seem to be hearing the siren call of the StairMaster once again.

As Covid restrictions have eased in some regions, gym traffic is back to more than 80 percent of the pre-lockdown levels of January 2020, according to a recent survey by Jefferies, the financial services company (it’s worth noting that gym membership reached record levels in 2019, according to the IHRSA).

A rebound is evident at Blink Fitness, where sign-ups last month, normally slow season for gyms, equaled those of January 2020, usually a frenzied month for gym-goers trying to make good on New Year’s resolutions, according to the company.

Gold’s Gym International, which filed for bankruptcy in 2020, was recently acquired by RSG Group, a German fitness company, for $100 million. The 24 Hour Fitness chain, which closed 100 clubs and filed for Chapter 11, emerged from bankruptcy last December following a restructuring.

Business is booming at some smaller gyms, as well. “Our numbers were stronger this past quarter than they ever were,” said Jenny Liu, the president of Dogpound, a high-end boutique gym focused on one-on-one training with locations in TriBeCa and West Hollywood.

For some fitness freaks, there is a larger reason to return to a gym: it’s the kind of thing people didn’t even used to think about doing before the pandemic.

This past July, Sarah Goldsmith, 36, a communications associate for a public affairs firm in Washington D.C., returned to her rigorous pre-Covid gym routine: almost every day, usually starting around 5:15 a.m.

“I’ve been sore almost every day since,” Ms. Goldsmith said. “For me, that is a big part of feeling normal again.”

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