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How the pandemic has changed working out at the gym for the better

Flexibility, safety measures and a holistic approach to health are all shifts that are here to stay.
Many gyms are offering outdoor training to allow people to enjoy group fitness while social distancing.
Many gyms are offering outdoor training to allow people to enjoy group fitness while social distancing.Maskot / Getty Images

More than two years after the pandemic forced fitness junkies to take their workouts in house, many of them are back in the gym, hoisting dumbbells and bouncing on treadmills. While 25% of health and fitness facilities permanently shuttered between March 2020 and December 2021, according to IHRSA, the Global Health & Fitness Association, thousands have endured and even evolved — with gym-goers enjoying more workout options than ever before. 

“People want flexibility,” said Todd Magazine, chief executive officer of Blink Fitness, a national gym franchise that survived the pandemic by providing virtual options for its members.

With vaccines available and restrictions lifted, fitness enthusiasts are pouring back into Blink Fitness gyms in record numbers. In March, the franchise saw its highest-ever membership increases, and its average gym check-ins have been “significantly higher” than in 2019, before the pandemic, according to the CEO. Not only have many people been deprived of exercise in a gym setting for months on end, he said, they also want to improve their health to boost their resiliency against a dangerous virus.

“The pendulum has definitely swung back to people wanting to go to the gym, because they want the community, they want the environment, they want to get out of their homes, it’s not easy to motivate yourself in your home,” Magazine told TODAY. “But we’ve continued to develop our digital app and all the content on that is very, very robust, and continues to be a great offering for people who can’t make it to the gym.”

Pandemic weight gain and mental health are other reasons people are coming back to the gym. In the last six months, Lisa Priestly, co-owner of New York City fitness boutique Studio in the Heights, has seen more people wanting to refocus on both their physical and mental health.

“I see this a lot in my coaching program, where people really come into the program feeling depressed about that 15 or 20 pounds that they added,” said Priestly.

Even as some gyms undergo a revival, the fitness industry is unlikely to go back to its former self — especially as the pandemic continues to make life unpredictable. Many large and small gyms alike are continuing to provide their members with more flexible membership options and safety measures. Here are a few things to expect. 

More virtual, hybrid and outdoor options

After shutting down its more than 100 locations in March 2020, Blink Fitness was able to direct its more than half a million members to its already existing fitness app, according to Magazine. The franchise also began providing workouts over Facebook Live, which it offers to both members and nonmembers, as well as virtual one-on-one personal training for members. Even after reopening their physical locations, it has continued to offer these virtual options.

A number of other large fitness franchises, including Crunch, 24 Hour Fitness, Equinox, LA Fitness and Anytime Fitness, also expanded or added virtual fitness content, with options to work out virtually at home, at the gym or both, according to their websites. 

Many smaller gyms are also offering more flexible programming for members. Studio in the Heights, located in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, shuttered in the spring of 2020 and transitioned to Zoom sessions in just three days, according to Priestly, who runs the gym with her husband. The gym reopened in September, but has continued its virtual program. Members can work out completely virtually, completely in-person or they can combine their programming to include a mix of in-person, virtual and outdoor training tailored to their needs.

While the remote classes have become less popular in recent months, Priestly said there is still “a hardcore group of people that stay on Zoom and stay connected.” 

“I think they feel safer being virtual,” she added. 

Safety first: ways to stay socially distanced at the gym

Speaking of safety, Blink Fitness was aware that many members are still wary of working out in crowds, so they added an online capacity meter on its website, which allows members to check how crowded their local gym is in real-time. The meter helps them plan when they want to come in or workout virtually if they feel there are too many people, according to Magazine. 

“You can look online, and you can see when the gyms are crowded, when the gyms are not crowded, and it’s a live feedback,” he said.

Priestly said her gym’s shared personal training — in-person classes of no more than four members who share a single trainer — has become the gym’s most popular option in recent months, since it allows members to enjoy group fitness while staying distanced from one another. The gym’s outdoor classes, held in local parks with no more 20 members per class, have also been popular, she said.  

“To have people come back and see people after just being on Zoom for six or eight months, it’s pretty phenomenal,” she said.

A greater focus on community and mental health 

The pandemic has also pushed some gyms to begin focusing on helping members improve their overall health — beyond just shrinking waistlines.

Noticing that many of her members, especially women, said they felt isolated and depressed during the pandemic, Priestly launched a virtual group coaching program for women in January to give them a way to connect. The 12-week “Revitalize” program focuses on overall health, rather than only physical health, helping members form better habits around eating, sleeping, movement, aging and more, she said. Whether participants want to lose weight or simply develop healthier habits, the program helps them achieve their individual goals together as a group. “The group carries you along,” she said.

The program is just a small example of how many businesses in the fitness industry are adjusting to meet people where they are at.

“I feel like we have to constantly just be the best version of ourselves,” said Priestly. “And I feel the same way for the industry; we have to constantly just be reacting to what is needed for our participants to be the best they can be and service them in the way that they feel most comfortable.”