The coronavirus pandemic could mark a huge shift for the fitness industry

This article is part of a Fortune Special Report: Business in the Coronavirus Economy—a look at the impact of the pandemic on more than 50 industries.

It was all there: the whitewashed brick, the crisp wooden floors, sun pouring through a wall of windows, and a host of Lululemon-clad yogis working their way through Child’s Pose. Our instructor, Matt, surveyed the room, instructing us to “rise to standing and bring our hands to heart space,” and we all prepared to go into a series of Sun Salutations. But unlike the typical yoga class, this hour-long session of CorePower had thousands in attendance, each at different points in our Forearm Flow. We were not all huddled in an impossibly chic, albeit overheated, studio in Midtown Manhattan or downtown Los Angeles—but were instead watching Matt, and four others, from the comfort of our own homes, flipping our Downward Dogs in living rooms and deepening our Warrior IIs in the kitchen.

As the coronavirus continues to invade every corner of the United States, the pandemic has led many to ditch their usual, studio-based fitness practices, fearing exposure to shared surfaces and a further spread of the virus. Workout studios boasted 64.2 million members in America in 2019, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association. But they have experienced significant drops in class attendance since the first case of COVID-19 was diagnosed in the U.S. at the end of January, and a growing number are opting to close their locations nationwide in the face of this crisis.

Barry’s Bootcamp announced on Sunday evening that it would temporarily shut its studios across the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Norway, Milan, and Dubai, citing the health and safety of its clients; after implementing new protocols, including capping classes at half capacity, last week, Rumble closed its studios nationwide on Monday; and CorePower Yoga did the same, stating that it intends to resume classes on March 30 but will continue to reassess.

A yogi following a class on her TV via mobile screen mirroring.
Courtesy of SoulCycle

While wellness brands enter this era of uncertainty, some see it as a real opportunity. Turning to at-home and on-demand streaming services—where users can tune into their favorite classes without risking their health or that of others—these companies hope to bring communities together in the midst of isolation, provide access to movement during unprecedented stillness, and not just maintain but maybe even boost business along the way.

“We experienced an expected dip in our studio attendance starting last week during certain class times—and we know as the virus continues to take hold, we will assume that many will choose to work out from the comforts of their own home,” says Amy Martin, the executive vice president of marketing for P.volve, a popular fitness program with studios in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. In the wake of the coronavirus, the brand chose to close its SoHo location in Manhattan, but it is offering a free 30-day trial to all new members of the P.volve streaming platform, which hosts more than 150 different workout and how-to tutorials that can be done with no or minimal equipment. “Since we launched our company, it’s been so important that our clients can work out when and where they want—wellness shouldn’t be dictated by space or class times,” Martin notes. “So we are happy that our clients can work out in their home, no matter where they live, and avoid crowded areas during this time.”

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Other industry leaders, including Alo, a brand known for its trendy workout clothes and premium fitness and mindfulness content, have followed suit. “In response to COVID-19, we have temporarily closed our in-person studios to take all precautions necessary to safeguard the health of others,” says Paul Javid, CEO of Alo’s streaming service, Alo Moves, which has observed significant growth in the past few weeks. “Additionally, we released a set of free full-length classes on YouTube so that everyone, including our studio members, can continue their practice from the comfort of their own home, with no strings attached. We will continue to do everything we can to offer classes through other means, so that in these uncharted and stressful times, when many cannot leave their homes, anyone can find a space to explore their mindfulness and grow their practice.”

A rider on the new SoulCycle at-home streaming bike powered by Variis, streaming workouts from fitness brands such as Equinox, SoulCycle, Pure Yoga, Precision Run, Myodetox, and HeadStrong.
Courtesy of SoulCycle

SoulCycle joined the growing list of closures on Monday, announcing that all of its studios across the U.S., the U.K., and Canada will shut down through April 30 at least. But, along with other Equinox-owned brands, members of SoulCycle won’t be without at-home alternatives. Last week, Equinox Media launched an early release of its new fitness platform, Variis, which will offer consumers unlimited, on-demand access to expert guidance from leading fitness brands, including Equinox, SoulCycle, Pure Yoga, Precision Run, Myodetox, and HeadStrong. The company also debuted the first-ever SoulCycle at-home bike, which will function with a $40 monthly membership to Variis. The $2,500 bike is now available for preorder, however, deliveries won’t begin until later this spring, so those seeking on-demand content right now will have to rely on the streaming platform’s other classes.

Wellness and fitness booking platforms, such as ClassPass and Mindbody, are also being forced to adapt to decreased demand in the wake of the coronavirus, but uniquely, they are more at the mercy of studios who use their services. “As a company dedicated to helping people feel their best, ClassPass is taking the threat of COVID-19 seriously, and we are monitoring updates from the CDC and WHO in every country where we are present,” says Zach Apter, the brand’s chief commercial officer. The company will continue to waive all coronavirus-related cancellation requests through the end of March, and all unused credits will roll over until June to ensure that members have the flexibility to take necessary precautions. ClassPass users can also choose to pause their accounts, and all unused credits will be available for use upon reactivation. “In the most affected areas, we have temporarily paused all active accounts,” Apter adds, “and we will continue to monitor the evolving situation.”

The transition from in-person studio classes—where equipment and space are abundant and a collective, group mindset thrives—to streaming workouts in a crowded apartment or home has proved less than seamless for many consumers, but they recognize how necessary such actions are.

“In-studio fitness is my life,” says Lauren Craddock, a 24-year-old New Yorker, who works in digital media. “I have a hard time working out alone and at my own direction, so I frequent yoga and Pilates studios in New York City weekly.”

Following along with stretching exercises demonstrated on a smartphone.
Courtesy of SoulCycle

As the coronavirus has become more and more serious, though, she decided to start working out from home, ordering a yoga mat and ankle weights online to ease the transition. “The big change of heart for me came from having worked at a boutique fitness studio and knowing that despite their best efforts, those places are not often cleaned as well as one would hope,” Craddock explains. “And in New York, these studios are often in tight spaces that aren’t the best places to be during a pandemic.” In her jump to at-home classes, the studio devotee has turned to the experts, which by and large include Instagram influencers.

“Towards the end of last week, we made the joint decision to opt out of in-studio workouts,” says Elizabeth Endres, half of the duo behind health and wellness site Sweats and the City, which regularly reviews various workout classes. “Although the majority of our business involves reviewing classes and supporting these studios and instructors, we quickly realized how important it was to lead by example and participate in flattening the curve. We’ve been trying our best to support our community in a way that encourages social distancing but also promotes their mental and physical well-being while at home.”

Endres and her cofounder, Dale Borchiver, believe the silver lining in this dire situation is how readily available streaming and on-demand workouts are. After noticing the demand from many of their followers, they shared a list of discounts and free trials currently on offer for online fitness classes and advised their fans on the best ways to cancel or pause memberships at popular gyms and platforms. “Now more than ever,” Borchiver says, “it’s important to maintain a sense of connection and community, and we’re all having to evolve in the ways that we do so.”

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