TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) – Going to the gym was always part of Kari Hamra’s routine until last year government-ordered shutdowns forced her to replace training with daily rides on her Peloton exercise bike.
That’s when she discovered something surprising – she didn’t miss the gym. At least not the driving back and forth, filling water bottles, changing clothes and, most importantly, taking the time off her husband and the two boys.
Now that her gym is open again in Springfield, Missouri, she is slowly making a comeback. But when she finds a more convenient workout plan at home and sees a spike in COVID-19 cases in her hometown this summer, she wonders how much she needs the gym. She reckons that if there had never been a coronavirus outbreak, “I would still be a sports rat.”
The pandemic has changed the way Americans exercise and turned the fitness industry on its head, accelerating the growth of a new era of high-tech home exercise machines and virtual classes.
Thousands of small fitness centers and studios that had to close a year ago have now finally disappeared. Others are struggling to stay afloat and have redesigned their rooms, turned to more personal workouts, and added online training.
The question is whether they can survive the onslaught of apps and expensive bikes and treadmills, or will they go the route of arcades, video rentals, and bookstores.
The manufacturer of interactive fitness equipment Peloton is betting that the trend towards working out from home will continue. On August 9, the groundbreaking took place for its first US plant near Toledo, Ohio, where it will start production in 2023 and employ 2,000 people.
Demand soared during the pandemic that some Peloton customers had to wait months for their bikes. While the company said its backlog had decreased, it reported sales increased 141% for the first three months of this year.
Company founder and CEO John Foley believes it is inevitable that technology-driven home fitness will become as dominant as streaming services have changed the way we watch movies.
Next steps include introducing more equipment to fitness studios in hotels, apartment complexes, and university campuses, as well as introducing new workouts through the app. It acquired Precor, a company with manufacturing and product development facilities in the United States, late last year
“Fitness is one of the few remaining categories that is massively disrupted by a digital experience,” Foley told The Associated Press.
In the first few months of the pandemic, most small and independent gyms and studios turned to Zoom and other video platforms for yoga and Pilates classes and workouts because it was the only way to connect with their members.
“Now there’s an expectation for that,” said Michael Stack, CEO of Applied Fitness Solutions, which operates three fitness centers in southeast Michigan.
Small gyms can’t compete with the production quality and looks of high-tech companies, but they can counter with online offerings that have personalized attention and closer relationships between their members and employees, he said.
“I think we even have the field like that,” said Stack.
Not all gym operators are convinced that virtual training will play an important role in their offering.
“We don’t have the budget to do this for the same price and quality,” said Jeff Sanders, CEO of Apex Athletic Health Club in Penfield, New York. “Digital is great, but we’ve seen surveys that show people want to stay active but miss interaction and togetherness.”
His company plans to open a third, smaller location near Orlando, Florida that will offer a more intimate experience. These kind of boutique studios could be the wave of the future, he said.
The pandemic has changed the way the fitness industry sees itself, and right now, “everyone is making decisions just to survive,” Sanders said.
About 9,000 fitness clubs – 22% of the country’s total – have closed and 1.5 million workers have lost their jobs since the virus outbreak began, according to the International Health Racquet & Sportsclub Association.
The industry group is campaigning for Congress to approve a $ 30 billion aid fund for the fitness industry as many clubs struggle to recover from months of lost revenue and membership and are still paying back rents.
While more closings are likely this year, and could run into the thousands without government help, the emergence of the workout-from-home trend will not spell demise for the fitness center, said Helen Durkin, the association’s executive vice president of public policy.
Many sports fans, she said, will still do both – 40% of Peloton users have gym memberships, according to the company.
There is no doubt that digital fitness will stay here, said Michelle Segar, director of the University of Michigan’s Sports, Health and Activity Research and Policy Center.
“People integrate their lives with technology. Here is society and it’s only getting more integrated, ”she said.
The biggest benefit of virtual workouts is that they offer more flexibility when it comes to sticking to workout routines and can attract more people into fitness, even those who can’t keep a rigid schedule.
“That’s why people don’t do it,” she said.
Cindy Cicchinelli, who has become a dedicated peloton user after years visiting her Pittsburgh gym, said convenience sold her.
“I can roll out of bed and not have to worry about running to the gym,” she said. “And I don’t have to add half an hour to get to work.”
Fitness industry leaders say research shows gyms pose no greater risk of spreading the virus than other public spaces. However, Dave Karraker, owner of a San Francisco gym, believes that going to a large, crowded gym will take a long time before many people are comfortable.
“You will think about ventilation and air purifiers and how long has it been since these devices were disinfected,” he said.
He reconfigured the two small MX3 Fitness studios and created personal training rooms. It’s gotten so popular that he’s looking for a third location.
He’s not surprised that people are coming back even though security is still an issue.
“You don’t want to live this loneliness anymore,” he said. “There are all kinds of motivations. Let’s face it, gyms are a great way to meet new people, especially when you’re single. “