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COVID-19 has changed how people exercise, but that doesn’t mean gyms are going away

June 11, 2020, 12:00 PM UTC

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A national kettlebell shortage and social media calls to #plankthecurve may have highlighted the importance of at-home fitness during COVID-19 social distancing, but as gyms open up, people are returning in droves to sweat with their peers. 

Gyms have reopened in more than half of states across the country as stay-at-home orders begin to lift, most under some form of reduced occupancy or other social distancing restrictions. President Trump’s federal reopening plan allows gyms to reopen as part of phase 1. Public health experts say it’s too soon for a return to the weightlifting bench, but many Americans can’t wait to get back to working out—even if the gym has been modified to allow for social distancing. 

Pure International Group, with 30-plus locations across South Asia, was one of the first club companies to close, then to reopen. In many of its clubs, it has constructed cardio equipment screens between each piece of machinery. This allows for a safe workout space while minimizing the loss of valuable real estate.
Courtesy of International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association

Fitness is a $34 billion industry, and an estimated 20% of Americans have a membership to some kind of fitness club, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA). When their workout spaces shut their doors, a number of them turned to their phones or laptops. The pandemic has increased the addressable market for virtual fitness offerings and also forced traditional gyms to move into offering more virtual products for at-home workouts, says Zach Apter, chief commercial officer of Classpass, which announced a $1 billion unicorn valuation in January. The pandemic has also raised awareness of the health benefits of working out: Poor cardiovascular health is one of the major risk factors for severe illness or death as a result of COVID-19. 

“We have experienced a demand shock for online or virtual fitness that might not have happened in a non-COVID world,” Apter says. The IHRSA had already identified technology-enhanced offerings like virtual fitness as an important industry trend in its 2019 report, and many gyms, especially large chains, were looking at moving further into the virtual space. But it might never have become such a priority without COVID-19. 

All this unfolded in an industry that was already in a state of change. “The fitness industry has evolved a lot in the last couple of years,” says analyst Peter Keith of Piper Sandler. The largest market segments are at the high-end boutique fitness studios, which tend to cater to one specific kind of exercise like Pilates or barre, and high-value, low-price (HVLP) gyms like Planet Fitness that rely on volume. In the middle market are properties like Gold’s Gym, which were already struggling to maintain relevance when the pandemic began, their traditional customer base hollowed out by offerings at the top and bottom of the market, Keith says. 

Planet Fitness is one of the few publicly traded stocks in this space, and Keith says that what happened there is a good example of how the pandemic impacted valuation in the fitness space. “You’re looking at a stock that went from about $70 to kind of bottoming out around $30,” he says. 

But the stock saw a jump at the beginning of June, when an SEC filing stated that membership numbers at the 800 locations were remaining steady, thanks to a spike in new sign-ups offset by churn. Keith says that’s consistent with the results of two surveys his firm conducted in April and May that showed about 80% of respondents are likely to retain their gym membership. 

To reassure uncertain people and ensure continued membership, fitness clubs at all points in the market need to have firm plans for what a reopened gym will look like in terms of social distancing and continue to reinforce those measures as they reopen, which will mean decreased capacity and increased sanitation measures, among other things. 

A new normal: Scenes from newly reopened Gold’s Gym.
Courtesy of Golds Gym

Benjamin Sibley, an Appalachian State University professor of exercise science who studies workout motivation, says many Americans are likely to return to their gym. “Gyms still offer a lot of things that people are struggling to achieve at home,” says Sibley. 

One of the gym’s big appeals—besides easy access to equipment and workout space, two things that are expensive and may not be available at home—is access to both the expert knowledge of trainers and class instructors and the community knowledge and support of other people working out. “Part of it is actively working out with other people at the same time and that shared suffering. I think a lot of people are going to be hungry for that,” says Sibley.

Those who managed to make the transition to at-home workouts successfully are likely to continue working out at home, at least some of the time. For one thing, it’s convenient. For another, they have the equipment now. Purchases of home fitness equipment from big-ticket items like treadmills to more basic equipment like dumbbells spiked in the last quarter, causing supply shortages as people tried to ensure they can keep up with their fitness routines. Serious weekend warriors have likely figured it out, says Sibley. 

Even many who don’t have the knowledge to design a routine themselves have relied on a wide selection of online classes. Gyms that have a lot of group fitness offerings, like CrossFit gyms and yoga studios, have tried to give their clients access to some of that knowledge and community at home by doing things like live-streaming workouts, posting videos for on-demand consumption, providing motivational coaching online, and even in some cases renting out equipment. 

Exercise is more important now than ever, says Jennifer Heisz, a McMaster University kinesiologist who studies exercise and the brain. For people who regularly exercise, even two weeks of sedentary time “is enough to cause a dip in mood,” she says. And exercise is a key component of stress relief, crucial to the millions of people who had their lives upended by the pandemic. Finally, she says, exercise helps people stay alert and focused, which might make those long Zoom meetings a little easier to handle. 

Things won’t go back to normal anytime soon. Virtual offerings help gyms hold on to clients and keep them engaged, even if they won’t be returning to the gym for months or a year, Sibley says. These offerings are often less expensive than gym memberships or offered on an à la carte basis. 

When its gyms shut their doors because of the pandemic, Gold’s Gym already had an app. The company made that app free to download and use and saw hundreds of thousands of downloads since January, says Gold’s Gym president and CEO Adam Zeitsiff. The company accelerated improvements that had already been in the works and added new features. In the future, “we’re going to be investing heavily,” Zeitsiff adds.

Consumer engagement with virtual fitness companies has also grown in recent months. For example, Peloton—which sells both a $12.99 per month independent digital membership and a $39 per month subscription for use with its stationary bike or treadmill, which both have one-time costs of thousands of dollars for the equipment—has seen a significant bump since the pandemic began, pushing the company over the 1 million subscriber mark. 

Hitting that mark is an “uphill battle,” says Peloton analyst Ron Josey of JMP Securities, and may have longer-term effects on market penetration. For now, many of those new subscribers are still on free trial of the stand-alone app, which the company extended from one to three months at the start of the pandemic. The short-term financial impact of all those extra subscribers won’t necessarily show up in this quarter’s earnings, he says—but the next quarter will show how many were converted to paying subscribers. 

Bloomberg Intelligence data suggests that, historically, about 10% of Peloton’s stand-alone app users are converted to an All-Access membership with a bike or treadmill. It’s possible that the recent economic downturn could change that conversion figure since many may have less disposable income. But in a certain light, this boutique fitness offering could be a budget choice: Analyst Paul Golding of Macquarie notes that Peloton is making the largest sales gains in households with income under $75,000. 

The sticker shock of the bike and the expensive monthly subscription it needs has turned off consumers before, but Peloton’s argument is that for a household with two users, the monthly payment for both the subscription and equipment, if paid in installments, is significantly less at $97 than two boutique gym memberships. “It also goes to show that however expensive a piece of equipment might seem, the industry has found ways of conveying the value as well as the flexibility that that brings,” Golding says.

“Home equipment, home exercise, is one of these trends that is likely to continue,” Josey says. He expects further diversification into this space but says Peloton is well positioned and ahead of its boutique virtual fitness competitors like Echelon, Myx Fitness, and Mirror. 

The bottom line is that, like everything else, the fitness industry has been changed by the pandemic. But that doesn’t mean people are going to stop working out together. “I don’t think people are going to want to stay at home forever,” says B. Nalani Butler, a professor of sport management at Kennesaw State University. “Everybody, right now, is just craving that sense of community, and sports really does bring that.”  

Butler says fitness and sports venues are closely watching what happens as Disney properties reopen. “From what I understand, they’re really setting the standards for how we’re going to be doing everything in sports,” she says, “from face masks to cashless payments to temperature checks when you go in.” 

Reopened fitness centers at all segments of the market have implemented some of those measures already. But it’s likely to be months or years before the industry stabilizes, because a vaccine for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is at least a year away, according to most estimates. But the rapid shift occasioned by the pandemic has shown two important things: The closer virtual fitness products can get to replicating the community impact of fitness, the more likely they are to succeed; and when it’s possible, many are eager to sweat among their friends once again. 

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