Will Fitness Fans Return To The Gym After The Pandemic?

By Rusty Simmons
San Francisco Chronicle

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) A recent survey conducted by athletic-shoe review site “RunRepeatof” found that 46.7% of gym members will not return to the gym when it reopens. 

San Francisco

One thousand percent.

That’s how much kettlebell sales are up in the United States since this time last year, according to a study by eBay, Google and Gymcatch. The popularity of the round weights with a handle, favored for their flexible uses in workouts, is just one indicator of how much people are relying on at-home fitness, either because gyms are closed or they fear going out during the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s also a sign that many — having invested in home fitness equipment and grown accustomed to video chats with trainers — might never return to gyms after the pandemic.

The fitness industry, which has seen fads and trends over the years, is now seeing a gigantic shift in behavior to at-home fitness and remote training, which will have lasting implications for existing businesses and is creating opportunities for entrepreneurs and innovators.

“People are definitely reluctant to go back,” said Erika Zauner, wellness expert and CEO of New York fitness-perks startup HealthKick. “There are die-hards, who are back at it, but the experience has changed. If you have to wear a mask or are anxious about touching equipment, you can’t blow off steam or get rid of stress. You end up feeling more stressed out.”

Swinging kettlebells may be some people’s release valve, but the demand is broader than just one piece of equipment. The eBay-backed study says sales have skyrocketed nationally for pull-up bars (640%), benches (530%) and barbells (355%) as people worry about returning to gyms, where it might be impossible to avoid others’ exhalations.

In California, long a leader in fitness trends, the same study found a 65% increase in sales of at-home fitness equipment since the shelter-in-place order was issued in mid-March.

“I would love to have access to a few of the machines in my gym,” said Ted Jones, who used to be a member at a 24 Hour Fitness in San Francisco. “The problem is, I’m 68, and I can’t see how this can work for me. The gym has to be a worst-case scenario. People will be blasting aerosols everywhere, and I will be gasping for breath, even in a loose mask.”

A survey of nearly 11,000 visitors to athletic-shoe review site RunRepeat conducted by Nick Rizzo, the site’s fitness research director, found that 46.7% of gym members will not return when the sites reopen. Many Bay Area gyms put the number at closer to 60%.

Facing that reality, gym owners have shifted to virtual training. But some are skeptical of it as a long-term solution.

The San Francisco YMCA has cut 60% of its staff and faces a loss of $2.5 million because of the pandemic. It’s working on upgrading the quality of its virtual training and has turned some of its fitness areas into recording studios, said Jane Packer, the nonprofit’s vice president of communications and membership marketing.

Orangetheory, a fitness chain in Boca Raton, Fla., with 40 locations in the Bay Area, is offering free online workouts.

“While that has been a terrific resource during the pandemic, we don’t believe they are a long-term substitute for working out in our studios,” Orangetheory co-CEO Marc Thomas said. “People enjoy the intensity, the community, and the energy of working out with others and with coaches in person. Once people get back into their routines, which we recognize will happen at different paces for different people, I am confident we will see people returning to our studios in large numbers.”

Asaf Antonir isn’t making the same bet. He founded Onyx, a San Francisco startup that makes a fitness app. Onyx uses on-device computer vision and artificial intelligence to track trainees’ exercise forms and provide guided workouts.

Even before the pandemic, Antonir estimates that home fitness was among the fastest growing segments in the industry, with an annual growth rate of 6% to 7% in each of the past three years. He believes that streaming workouts will be a large part of the sector forever.

Onyx’s monthly signups increased fivefold in March. It saw similar results in April and May as more search terms like “at-home fitness” and “home workout apps” were recorded on the internet.

Fitness SF CEO Sebastyen Jackovics said the virtual or remote version of gyms misses the point. Working out at a gym, he argues, helps people combat isolation, as well as improving health and wellness.

“We consider ourselves a health care provider, not just a fitness provider,” said Jackovics, whose company runs eight workout centers in San Francisco, Oakland and Corte Madera. Gyms, he added, “are also many people’s refuge and outlet.”

“Not being able to care for themselves by working out is damaging to people’s physical and mental health.”

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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