Gyms Reopening After Coronavirus: 50% of Members Won't Return

An empty gym with treadmills and other fitness equipment.
Despite safety protocols, many people don't plan on returning to their gym.

Mint Images / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • The societal and economic changes caused by the COVID-19 pandemic are affecting gyms and other fitness businesses.
  • Research shows that many Americans are opting not to return to reopened fitness centers.
  • The fitness industry will need to adapt to keep its customers.

The coronavirus pandemic took its toll on every industry, the fitness industry included. 

As cases level out in some places and decline in others (yet still rise elsewhere), gym and studio owners ponder the pros and cons of reopening their doors to members and returning to pre-COVID business as usual. 

Only, there is no “business as usual.” What existed before the COVID-19 crisis upended society and the economy does not exist anymore. We have moved from pre-pandemic into pandemic and we are slowly shifting to whatever post-pandemic will look like

For the fitness industry, the future is untold. Here, we take a look at what might unfold in the next few months, when (and if) coronavirus cases let up enough for gyms to return to their usual operations. 

What Fitness Experts Say

In a report released by RunRepeat, nearly half of people with gym memberships prior to the COVD-19 outbreak said they won’t return to their gym when it opens, with Americans being the least likely to re-up their gym memberships.

Fitness experts of various backgrounds have been voicing their opinions on the changing fitness industry online. Here’s what a few have to say about post-pandemic fitness.

Things Will Return to Normal

“I have faith that things will eventually return to normal. At the end of the day, nothing really beats the energy that comes with training with a collective. However, depending on the population of their area, they’ll be competing more strongly with at-home fitness alternatives, like MIRROR. It’s in [gyms’] best interests to have multiple revenue streams so they won’t be caught flat-footed in the next crisis.”
Gerren Liles, founding trainer at MIRROR, Equinox fitness instructor and owner of VizFit Apparel

Safety Must Come First

For a lot of gyms, “the next few months can very well be a ‘make-or-break’ period that can dictate their survival," says Nicholas Rizzo, fitness research director at RunRepeat and author of the RunRepeat study on gyms reopening. "Every gym now has to step up to the same challenge and if they are unable to do so they risk losing more of their membership.”

Nicholas Rizzo

The health, safety, needs, and concerns of members have to be paramount and gyms need to be focused on actively communicating with their members how they plan to address all of this. Without this, gyms may fail to rebuild or lose the trust of their members.

— Nicholas Rizzo

Digital Fitness Won't Take Over

“I do not think digital fitness has any chance of completely taking over. But it will thrive and be a part of the entire toolbox people need…In-person fitness isn’t going anywhere (just as casinos didn’t go away with online gambling), but it will need to address what members value most now. I believe digital will help enhance the world of in-person fitness and vice versa.”
Blair McHaney, CEO of MXM, a member experience management system

Returning to "Normal" Is a False Reality

“While reopening dominates the conversation (and headlines), it doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of what’s next. From sanitizing studios to social distancing measures and the risk of a second wave, not to mention the surge of at-home exercisers, a return to ‘business as usual’ is a false reality.”
— Joe Vennare, in the FITT Insider newsletter

Gyms Reopening After Coronavirus, Gym-Goers Return With Caution

Among those who are planning to return or have already returned, they are acknowledging the risk and are being proactive to address any potential issues, Rizzo tells Verywell Fit. 

Some eager fitness fiends returned as soon as their gyms reopened the doors with a focus on safety. Many gym-goers, for example, bring changes of clothes for before and after the gym and their own sanitation supplies to clean themselves before and after the gym.

For these people, it’s about being incredibly vigilant when it comes to cleaning and social distancing in the gym. Still, others are conservative about their return, not necessarily for their own health and well-being, but for their friends and family who are in more at-risk populations.

On the other hand, Rizzo points out, “many people are really nervous about returning because they have to trust their fellow members,” nodding to the fact that tight-knit, community-centered gyms have actually reported increases in membership. 

“When you have a close community, you are invested in one another and care for each other's well being, so you feel more comfortable knowing that they got your back, in comparison to what you may see at a traditional, corporate fitness center,” Rizzo says. 

Shutdowns, Bankruptcies, and Safety Standards 

It’s clear to see that the coronavirus significantly altered the fitness industry as most people know it. Big brands — some of the most profitable and well-known in the industry — have closed multiple gym locations and even filed for bankruptcy.

24-Hour Fitness, for example, filed for bankruptcy and permanently closed more than 130 locations across the US. Gold’s Gym, a fitness industry staple, and symbol, filed for bankruptcy in May 2020 and closed company-owned, but not franchise-owned, locations. Town Sports considers bankruptcy, too.

We can assume that the underlying logic behind these closures and filings is simple: Their facilities lost money during the coronavirus shutdown and weren’t expected to recoup after the fact.

Gyms that do reopen will have to implement new policies to uphold safety standards in the age of coronavirus—if they want to keep their member base, that is. 

It’s kind of a double-edged sword: Safety-minded members will only return if they’re confident in their gym’s illness prevention protocols. Others, however, won’t want to bother with the complication and frustration related to wearing masks, cleaning excessively, physically distancing, waiting for equipment, and being precluded from using amenities like locker rooms and showers.

Gym owners and managers must accept that they can’t please everyone. There are two basic parties of people: Those who are concerned about health and safety, and those who view coronavirus prevention measures as an annoyance, and both parties want different things.

In the end, it’s up to the brand to understand what most of its members want and to smartly implement those desires into their operations.

Digital Solutions Soar

Digital fitness was on the rise before COVID-19 struck the industry head-on, and it seems the pandemic has simply accelerated what was already happening. 

Streaming services with in-home, tech-forward hardware—such as MIRROR, Tonal, and Peloton—experienced leaps in sales. App-only services, of which there are hundreds (if not thousands), also enjoyed increased subscriptions. 

Many brands quickly pivoted to online streaming services, ranging from simple Instagram livestreams to full-blown fitness apps. Smart leaders will continue to implement and refine their digital services moving forward.

Where Do We Go From Here?

McHaney puts it poignantly: Brick-and-mortar gyms that are attuned to the member experience will thrive, while brick-and-mortar gyms who aren’t so sensitive to the member experience will “be extremely challenged as they will be slow to react to all of the rapid dynamics taking place.”

McHaney expects to see some real innovation take place among traditional gyms as the coronavirus pandemic persists and changes the way that consumers interact with fitness establishments. 

Liles also believes that in-person fitness establishments still have a chance to regroup and reinvent, but because “brick-and-mortar businesses were already struggling to innovate, they need to introduce alternative experiences outside of the actual workout to attract attention.”

Digital fitness will continue to rise, Liles says, and will eventually become even more crowded with new products and services. “While it’s great to have so many options,” he says, “the hope is that the quality of the actual programming and messaging won’t take second fiddle to providing experiences and perspectives that may be engaging, but misleading and self-destructive.”

Rizzo says it’s all in the eyes of the beholders—in this case, gym-goers.

“The gyms that stand out in local communities may actually experience growth while other gyms endure an exodus of members,” Rizzo says. “Unfortunately, this means we may see gyms that have been staples in communities struggle a great deal and potentially be forced to close down.”

The Pandemic Will End, But the Impact Will Last

People have definitely noticed the conveniences that come with working out at home: saving money on gas or commuting, plus not purchasing clothes, gear, smoothies, or other extraneous items that come with the in-person experiences.

People are also learning to recognize quality, Liles says. “Without the bells and whistles of our fancy studios, consumers are really able to evaluate the skills and know-how of the trainers they work with. This leads them to make more informed choices about how they are spending their fitness budgets now.”

This is especially true for parents, Rizzo says, as going to the gym can require you to hire a babysitter or “enlist your partner to watch the kids for 90 minutes just so you can exercise for 30 minutes.” 

Now that people have been forced to work out at home, they realize that being fit doesn't require major sacrifices, such as spending hours at the gym and upending your entire day just to get some exercise in. “Whenever it’s convenient, you can get a workout in [at home],” Rizzo says. 

This could mean that fewer people choose gyms over home fitness overall. It could mean that former gym-goers start going to boutique studios instead, because they know they’ll be in and out in an hour. It could mean that more people set up complete home gyms. One thing is for certain: It definitely means that streaming solutions (with or without hardware) continue to rise in popularity.

It’s Not About Fitness Anymore 

It’s clear that the fitness landscape will continue to mold, reform and flow based on the demands of the consumer. However, it’s not just about where we exercise anymore. The COVID-19 crisis has changed how we exercise.

The narrative has shifted starkly, especially for people who were—until COVID-19 forced them out of gyms—invested in high-intensity, high-volume training with goals to pack on muscle, shed body fat, and push their physical limits as often as possible. 

Some of those people panic-bought dumbbells and high-tech home gym equipment, but many others found themselves with just one option: Use your own body weight to work out. 

Thus, more people began walking, jogging, hiking, and engaging in gentler forms of exercise like yoga or bodyweight strength training. The change may have felt a bit jarring at first, but many fitness die-hards have shed their former “all or nothing” mindset and adopted, instead, an “always something” mindset.

Fitness is just a pebble in the sand, and if the COVID-19 pandemic has one silver lining for gym junkies, it’s that your walls won’t come crumbling down without your favorite leg day machines. 

What This Means For You

Changes aren’t just coming—they’re already happening. Only time will tell what happens to the gym industry and how the general narrative of the fitness consumer shifts. For the fitness industry to survive, professionals must see themselves as exercise “habit makers.”

The fitness companies that understand the member’s journey and deliver an incredible, repeatable experience—whether that comes in the form of studio classes, a traditional weightroom, or high-tech in-home products—will thrive.

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