When, in March 2020, the world seemed to shut down overnight, one of the first types of businesses to shut their doors was gyms. In fact, gyms were quickly identified as a hotbed of viral transmission, and those that attempted to open amid widespread lockdowns repeatedly wound up in the spotlight for sickening their clientele.

As a result, gyms – a huge industry in the United States – largely stood empty for the past year, creating a crisis of survival for the sector. Just as quickly as things shut down, though, the world seems to be reopening as large swaths of the population receive vaccinations, raising a key question: will people go back to the gym?

Membership Insights: Who Goes To The Gym?

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In order to understand how much the pandemic impacted gym memberships, we first need to consider a few facts about the industry. First, many people hold gym memberships that they never or almost never use. Bought in a fit of determination around New Year’s, often at a discount, this population views going to the gym exclusively as a sort of aspirational activity, not as something they actually do. This group is unlikely to continue purchasing gym memberships unless they’re tempted by promises of pandemic weight loss.

On the other end of the spectrum from non-utilizing members, gyms have a select group of members who spend several hours using the facilities most days of the week. These individuals are a relative minority and tend to cluster in more specialized gyms, rather than mainstream chains, and because of their equipment or space needs, these athletes will undoubtedly re-up their memberships.

Ultimately, the group that’s likely to be most divided on returning to the gym are those who make up the majority of gym patrons: moderate users. These are people who put in a few hours a week at the gym and who likely continued training at home during the pandemic. That being said, because they were able to keep up with a satisfying fitness routine during this time, this group is less likely to keep their gym memberships. They tend to have less substantial equipment needs and can adapt their workouts more readily.

Who Wants To Come Back? Conflicting Data Emerges

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One of the challenges gyms is facing as they begin reopening is determining how many people will choose to come back, and when. Unfortunately, polls are of little help. For example, in a poll performed by UpSwell Marketing and reported in the industry publication Club Industry this April, 60% of gym-goers still preferred home or outdoor workouts, but 80% were open to returning to gyms at some point in the future. When is that future? After they’re vaccinated? When will we reach herd immunity? Some other, arbitrary point? Such numbers communicate very little about who is ready to walk back through the doors of their local gym.

Another issue facing gyms is that different surveys reveal markedly different attitudes towards gym use. In a March 2021 survey administered by RunRepeat and reported by WTOP News, almost a full 10% more gym members around the globe were opposed to ever returning, with that total peaking in the United States where 35% said they wouldn’t be back, even after receiving their vaccinations. While there may not be a lot of clarity here, one thing that these surveys do reveal is that gyms are going to need to reinvent themselves if they hope to survive.

Alternative Fitness Options

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Over the course of the pandemic, many people realized they could get entirely satisfying workouts at home, and that these workouts often served their particular needs even better than the ones they could get at the gym. Maybe it was a matter of timing – by cutting out the commute to the gym, there was more time to enjoy time with family or cook a healthy meal. Others enjoyed being able to choose from a wide array of fitness instructors online, even if that meant not being able to interact with them as directly.

Given all of these new realizations on the part of gym patrons, owners will have to overcome some serious barriers in order to succeed – but many are already rising to the challenge. For example, one model that’s likely to gain traction because it offers a hybrid between independent online workouts and personal training, is online fitness coaching, like the version offered at DemetzOnlinePersonalTraining.com. Participants in this kind of program have access to a trainer who provides targeted support for their fitness goals, but the program can be accessed from anywhere and doesn’t tie users to a particular gym.

Another approach that traditional gyms should consider is the continued option of online classes. This might be part of a “flex” plan for local gym membership, in which people have the choice to use an area facility or take real-time or on-demand classes remotely. Local, but remote fitness classes were actually quite popular during the pandemic, since many people are loyal to their local instructors and like to support their neighborhood gyms.

Boutique And Specialty Gyms

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Overall, the most substantial challenges to gym survival are poised to disproportionately impact more generic gym facilities – the sort that caters to people with a low-to-moderate level of commitment and athletic professionalism – more than niche or boutique facilities. That’s because, individuals who aren’t training for a particular, intensive activity, whether that’s weight-lifting or running a marathon, are more likely to turn to low-cost fitness activities, like walking in the park with friends or taking a class on YouTube. They quickly find their gym memberships aren’t worth the cost.

Specialty gyms, on the other hand, are much more likely to offer something their clients view as an indispensable service, and as such, they won’t have to do as much to adapt to this changing moment. They may delay returning, depending on their individual risk profile, but they will most likely return. This split represents another important problem with the data on gym membership and the pandemic; the patterns will be very different depending on the athletic pursuit in question, though other factors, including income, also play a role.

The pandemic has undoubtedly changed how we think about fitness, but it will likely take the next year, at least, to begin understanding the scope of those changes and whether they’ll really last. People adapt quickly, but it remains to be seen whether we found something better to replace our old routines with. The answer to that question is what will make or break the fitness industry as we know it.