Gyms that survived the pandemic are back in shape

Gyms that survived the pandemic are back in shape

One day in January, a regular at the Fuel Training Studio in Newburyport, Massachusetts stopped in for a “shredding” class. He hadn’t set foot in the gym since before the pandemic.

The client told owners Julie Bokat and Jeanne Carter that she had been exercising alone in her basement home, but had gradually become less motivated and sometimes worked out in her pajamas without breaking a sweat.

“I was getting bored with what I was doing, so here I am,” Bokat was quoted as saying. She heard similar comments from clients who returned after more than two years of working out in a basement or converted home office.

Fuel Training Studio owners Julie Bokat, left, and Jeanne Carter

Fuel Training Studio owners Julie Bokat, left, and Jeanne Carter pose for a photo inside their gym, Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023, in Newburyport, Massachusetts. Gyms and fitness studios were among the businesses hardest hit during the pandemic. But for the gyms that ma (AP Newsroom)

During the “dark days” of the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, Bokat and Carter moved teams outdoors to hold classes in parking lots and in a greenhouse they built for the winter. They also held classes online, but attendance still plummeted by 70%. They weren’t sure the business would survive.

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They weren’t alone. Gyms and fitness studios were among the businesses hardest hit during the pandemic, 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, no industry-specific federal aid was given to gyms. Twenty-five percent of US gyms and health studios have closed permanently since the pandemic began, according to the National Health & Fitness Alliance, an industry group.

For the gyms that survived the worst, there are signs of stability afoot. Foot traffic at gyms increased about 32% during the first two weeks of January 2023 compared to 2022, according to the most recent data from Placer.ai, which tracks retail foot traffic.

Spinning class at Fuel Training

Deb Figulski participates in a spin class at the Fuel Training Studio, Thursday, January 19, 2023, in Newburyport, Massachusetts. Gyms and fitness studios were among the businesses hardest hit during the pandemic. But for the gyms that survived the worst, the signs of (AP Newsroom)

In Fuel Training, the greenhouse is gone, as are the spin classes in the parking lot. Attendance is still 35% down from 2019, but Bokat and Carter say more people are coming every day. Gym-goers say they miss the sense of community a gym can provide.

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“I’m pretty sure, man, if we kept our community going through the darkest days, it can only get better from there, and it has,” Bokat said.

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, owner of the NYC Personal Training Gym in New York, went from nine trainers to four during the pandemic and had to move to training sessions online. In 2021, he moved into 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 be successful, almost take a step back, to take another step forward.”

Now, it’s back to six trainers, but plans to maintain the new business model by renting space to hedge its bets in the event of another recession.

Instructor Jessie Reardon leads a weight class

Instructor Jessie Reardon, right, leads a weight class at the Fuel Training Studio, Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023, in Newburyport, Massachusetts. Gyms and fitness studios were among the businesses hardest hit during the pandemic. But for the gyms that made it through the w (AP Newsroom)

In their new space, Codio limits people on the floor to 10-12 to make clients feel more comfortable about COVID. But most of the clients 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 a person is concerned, there are measures that we take, we have masks or we have them on during different hours when there are fewer people,” he said.

For Jessica Benhaim of Lumos Yoga & Barre in Philadelphia, some changes from the pandemic have led to a boom in business. Not only is she back to pre-pandemic levels of attendance, but she recently opened a second location.

Julie Bokat leads a spinning class

Fuel Training Studio owner Julie Bokat leads a spin class in a workout space inside the gym, Thursday, January 19, 2023, in Newburyport, Massachusetts. Gyms and fitness studios were among the businesses hardest hit during the pandemic. But for the gyms that made it (AP Newsroom)

Demand returned to normal in the summer of 2022, Benhaim said. She increased the price of a walk-in class from $5 to $25 to offset higher costs for employee salaries and cleaning supplies, but says that hasn’t deterred clients.

Benhaim attributes two pandemic changes to helping demand recover: outdoor classes and limited class sizes. He started outdoor classes from April to October during the pandemic at a nearby community garden out of necessity, but now has no plans to stop them.

“People love to be outside, especially when the weather is nice in the spring, even in the summer when it’s hot,” he said.

Classes are still capped at 12, up from 18 before the pandemic. She makes up for the decline by offering more classes at her two studios.

“I think it gives everyone a little bit more space like, you know, having a couple more inches between the mats, people really appreciate that.”

When the pandemic first hit, Vincent Miceli, owner of Body Blueprint Gym in Pelham, New York, expected 30% of his clients not to return. He underestimated.

Miceli believes 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 exercising altogether.

Now, it’s seeing slow growth, similar to pre-pandemic levels, of about 5% per month as home exercise loses its luster. He still has 35% fewer clients than in February 2020. Most of the new clients are people who haven’t exercised before, he said.

“That gives us a new type of vital element for the business,” he said. Personal training is booming: 60% more. And she’s focusing on fewer classes that are a better fit for her current clients, like a strength and conditioning class called “Strength in Numbers” for women ages 40 and older.

He says that people’s interest in being healthy is overshadowing their fear of getting sick in a gym.

“I think the severity with which unhealthy people have gotten sick in recent years is also allowing people who haven’t exercised at all to pay more attention to it,” he said.

Miceli’s business has picked up to the point that he is ready to start opening other locations.

“I think in-person fitness will never go away,” he said.

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