I hated to do it, but I recently canceled my membership at a health club I’ve belonged to for a decade.
I’m sticking with outdoor exercise, YouTube classes and a home gym for now — a personal decision partly based on advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to limit indoor group training sessions.
Experts say people who are breathing heavily are likely expelling more respiratory droplets — the main way infected people spread the coronavirus — so it’s extra important to wear a mask and practice social distancing.
Fitness buffs worried about it all have plenty of in-home options, adding to the stress of gyms trying to stay afloat after the national shutdown this spring.
The fitness industry has been “absolutely devastated” by COVID-19, said Meredith Poppler, vice president of communications at the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, a trade group that represents fitness facilities.
Almost $14 billion of revenue has been lost so far this year through September 1, with many clubs still not open, she noted. In gyms that are open, capacity has often been reduced 25-50%, though clubs still have 100% of expenses.
IHRSA estimates at least a quarter of the country’s 40,000 fitness facilities could close by the end of 2020 without financial relief from Congress.
“Some clubs have successfully pivoted to make money with outdoor workouts and virtual classes, but these are no way near enough to cover the difference,” Poppler told TODAY.
Big national operators including Gold’s Gym and 24 Hour Fitness have filed for bankruptcy, with the latter company permanently closing 133 locations as part of the restructuring. Town Sports International — a chain in the Northeast whose brands include New York Sports Clubs and Boston Sports Clubs — has also filed for bankruptcy.
'Insane' competition from in-home options
Independent operators are feeling the impact, too.
“I feel like we’re competing against the Peloton and the Mirror — everything from home,” said Heather Harrington, co-founder of Compass Fitness in Denver, Colorado.
“We’ve pivoted in 15 different directions… it’s been challenging to say the least.”
The gym is offering both in-person and online classes, adjusting schedules, encouraging more personal training and taking precautions, like asking members to wear masks and limiting how many can fit into a space.
But working out in a mask is a huge deterrent for some people, so a number of them have told Harrington they’ve invested in equipment for a home gym. The competition from in-home options has been “insane,” she noted.
Indeed, Peloton this month reported surging sales of its bike and treadmill, and said it expected the strong demand to continue into 2021.
Such growing demand for home fitness equipment “does not bode well” for gyms because members may continue to stick with home workouts after the crisis is over and cancel their gym memberships, a report from Moody’s Investors Service cautioned this summer.
Analysts expected the 2020 earnings of health clubs to plunge 50-60%, even up to 90% in some cases, with the environment remaining difficult into 2021.
People don’t need a dedicated gym or tons of equipment to stay active and healthy, said Keith Diaz, a certified exercise physiologist and assistant professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University Medical Center in New York.
“Your body is all that you really need,” he noted.
Walking, running or dancing can provide a great aerobic workout, while adding high-intensity and circuit-based training to the routine can improve fitness levels, Diaz said.
For strength training, he was a fan of body weight exercises, such as pushups, situps, lunges, squats and planks, which can be done without any equipment and work several muscle groups at once.
It's not all doom and gloom
The coronavirus crisis comes after a spectacular year for the fitness industry, with more than 64 million Americans belonging to a health club in 2019, an all-time high and an increase of 28% since 2010, according to the IHRSA.
Returning to those pre-pandemic gym membership levels may be slow because some people will be reluctant to exercise in social settings before a COVID-19 vaccine is available, the Moody’s report noted.
But experts who study people’s fitness habits believe it’s not all doom and gloom.
The convenience factor for home gyms is hard to overlook, but don’t discount the social element of health clubs, Diaz said.
“People have always had the ability to work out from home. Yet many still opt to pay for the gym membership,” he noted. “The reasons for this will still be the same when the pandemic is over. There are benefits of working out in a crowd or in a group that you simply can get at home.”
The support and reinforcement from instructors and other fitness buffs is a powerful motivator for many people, Diaz said. So are the opportunities to diversify a workout.
Analysts ultimately still expected health clubs to attract lots of members for their variety of equipment and classes, personal trainers and “hard to replicate services” such as pools and saunas. They may just have to add a library of at-home classes to stay competitive.
“There’s nothing like the energy in a room when there are 50 people working out with you and you’re sweating and having fun,” Harrington said.
“We’re still open, we’re still getting people in the door, and I’m super grateful for the people who have supported us throughout.”