Home workouts dominated during the pandemic. Will the trend change the fitness industry?

Diana J. Smith

Active Californians turned to exercising outdoors or at home when Gov. Gavin Newsom directed gyms to close on March 16. Many fitness centers debuted live-streamed classes during the coronavirus pandemic; sporting equipment sales boomed as living rooms and garages became makeshift gyms.

As gyms started reopening in June, business owners and customers sought a new normal that may point to lasting shifts in the industry. Prior to the pandemic, many frequented the gym for access to specialty equipment, but some people have now bought their own gear, and online options have emerged as a viable alternative for group fitness businesses.

Austin Walsh bought new dumbbells, resistance bands and running shoes since his gym closed. His home setup — in the bedroom, since his wife does barre workouts in the living room — isn’t perfect, but it seems safe.

“The most elusive piece of equipment is an Olympic bench press rack, which is nearly impossible to find for less than $1,000,” Walsh said. “Me and the other guys in our social bubble have made a pact that if we find a nice bench at a reasonable price, we’ll split the cost and come up with an arrangement for shared use.”

Walsh kept paying for his monthly gym membership through the stay-at-home order with hopes that it would help keep gym staff employed. But although his gym can now reopen, he decided to permanently cancel his membership in July because he doesn’t feel safe going back.

Jake Suchoski also used to frequent the gym for access to weights and other equipment. But Suchoski, who has a kidney problem, has avoided the gym since the start of the pandemic as a health precaution. People with chronic kidney disease may be at a higher risk for severe cases of COVID-19.

“A gym is an environment where it doesn’t seem like there’s an easy way to keep the spread down,” Suchoski said, citing shared equipment and heavy breathing as concerns. He got a free set of decades-old weights from a friend and used those in addition to going for outdoor runs. Brianna Megid also acquired home workout equipment — in her case, a bike with a desk attachment, so she can fit in cardio while writing. Megid’s multitasking inspired several friends and family members to follow suit. “We’re a little biking productivity pod!” she said.

Sporting good suppliers sell out

Equipment flew off the shelves of sporting goods suppliers at the start of the pandemic, industry employees said. Victor Novak, the owner of the Sacramento Exercise Equipment Center, said he saw a surge in sales that leveled out only because his business sold out of many items and could not restock quickly enough.

“People are buying as a temporary fix until the gyms are open,” Novak said.

Overwhelmed by hundreds of daily phone calls asking about supplies, Sacramento Exercise Equipment recorded a voicemail greeting listing the types of weights they do and don’t have in stock.

Josh Cooperman-Earl wanted to go back to the gym, but remains tentative after a first visit to California Family Fitness on June 12. Cooperman-Earl was taken aback by throngs of exercisers not wearing masks at his first visit back at the gym.

“People acted as if there was nothing going on,” Cooperman-Earl said. “I saw handshakes and hugs.” He said he saw employees wearing masks and cleaning the equipment, but worried about the other exercisers’ behavior.

Cooperman-Earl has since tried another California Family Fitness location and said it was “much better.” After Newsom expanded mask requirements for Californians in a June 18 order, Cooperman-Earl said he observed more masks at the gym and he might go to workout occasionally. Mostly, he plans to stick to his pandemic fitness routine of running and using the pullup bar and one set of dumbbells he has at home.

Tom Mailey, who also frequented California Family Fitness before the pandemic, is keeping his membership but is not ready to go back to the gym in person yet. He said he’s staying in shape with mountain biking, running and resistance band workouts.

Still, Randy Karr, the president of California Family Fitness, said he anticipates clients gradually returning to the gym as state orders allow. California Family Fitness, or Cal-Fit, reopened 12 of its 19 locations on June 12 and another three on June 22.

“Generally the reason people join a club is they like the social interaction, or it offers amenities they wouldn’t have outside the club,” Karr said.

Cal-Fit is far from the only fitness business that has been working to get customers back. The pandemic has been difficult on fitness businesses that distinguished themselves with specialized equipment. Ramsey Nijem opened his business just a week before the March 15 order that gyms had to close. Nijem’s endeavor, Basecamp Climb Studio, is centered around a piece of equipment called the VersaClimber, which combines a lower-body step machine with an upper-body climbing machine.

“It’s a very specific and niche workout that requires a piece of machinery most people don’t have,” Nijem said. He made a few free online workout videos and created social media advertisements for Basecamp while he waited for state approval to open.

Since June 15, he has offered classes at half capacity and said demand seems promising.

Online options popular for classes

Julie Havelock, the owner of Purely Hot Yoga, said she anticipates lasting changes to the structure of her business after exploring online class options over the past few months.

When the studio’s in-person classes went on hiatus March 14, teachers quickly switched to online instruction. Students got creative, too, with some setting up space heaters to replicate the experience of doing yoga in a hot room.

“People were finding that with the stress of the pandemic, they had a little relief,” Havelock said.

Purely Hot Yoga reopened June 12 with limitations including smaller class sizes and no towel or mat rentals. But even with in-person classes an option again, Havelock wants to increase the quantity and quality of her online offerings.

She began building a library of fitness videos in late March that includes a number of shorter, 20- and 30-minute classes targeted to specific needs like stretching, core strength or meditation. The format allows students to exercise according to their own goals and schedules, Havelock said.

Online classes have been a popular way to socialize while remaining vastly distant. Businesses big and small moved workouts online in March to deal with the pandemic. Jenna Lynn had just launched online classes for her business, Studio Physique Dance & Fitness, when the pandemic began.

Studio Physique Dance & Fitness recently began holding outdoor classes in William Land Park, with participants standing at a distance from each other. Lynn is considering hybrid options going forward, including studio classes, online offerings and maybe continued outdoor sessions, too. She said both online and outdoor options have been popular with her clients.

“When we started, we’d envisioned doing online to begin with,” Lynn said. While her brick-and-mortar location was closed, she expanded the studio’s video selection by recording daily classes. Lynn has been offering all classes for free for the past few months.

“It’s our own way to help,” she said.

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