As the New Year gets underway, the fitness industry is breathing a sigh of relief. It has been a rough three years for those who provide the means to a healthy body for millions of Americans, but times are changing for the better.
During the pandemic, one in four health and fitness facilities across the nation closed permanently. Americans, who were forced to hunker down at home either gave up their fitness routine overall or made do as best they could with a few dumbbells and maybe, if they could afford it, online membership to one of the many internet fitness sites such as Peloton.
Most readers are not aware that gyms and fitness studios were among the hardest-hit businesses during that period. First, it was the lockdowns, followed by limits on the number of people allowed to attend classes, or even to work out at the gym. Strict rules on wiping down equipment, wearing masks, and maintaining distances between members discouraged even the most die-hard members after a time.
While other services such as restaurants, bars, and other live venues were supported with federal aid, health clubs were left to survive on their own. The National Health & Fitness Alliance, an industry group, found that 25 percent of U.S. health clubs and studios closed permanently due to the pandemic. My gym, a nationwide franchise, was among the victims.
Personally, my wife, Barbara, and I are confirmed gym rats and have been for decades, so COVID-19 decimated our routines. Fortunately, we were early members of Peloton, so we already had the bike for several years before the pandemic. These online classes had already been included in our daily routine at home.
In addition, we own a rower, and a comprehensive set of weights, which we used when not at the gym. Thanks to that backup equipment, we managed to maintain our physical routines during this period. Of course, our living room suddenly became a mini gym, but our workouts were just too important to sacrifice. In addition, we supplanted our indoor activities with an increased level of outdoor hiking, lake swimming, kayaking, and aquacise.
However, we recognize that both of us are highly motivated individuals, and somewhat competitive. All I need to see is my wife huffing and puffing during one of her internet classes for me to jump on the rower, or go for a run shortly thereafter — but that's us. I recognize that not everyone is as motivated (obsessed) with physical fitness as we are.
For many, the health club functions as a community where social interaction and group motivation is as important as exercise for many members. To their credit, the industry fought back as membership plummeted, and did what it could to survive. They diversified their offerings to maintain and attract members.
Outdoor classes in parking lots, public parks, and beaches, even winter greenhouses, sprang up across the U.S. On the weekend, for example, one enterprising local gym set up shop in a lakeside parking lot. Berkshire Money Management, whose owner Allen Harris, is another dedicated gym rat, offered his company grounds as an outdoor venue for both yoga and workout enthusiasts.
By necessity, class sizes were reduced, and workout areas enlarged, while many gyms pivoted to online training sessions. Personal training has also come back into fashion. All these innovations seem to be working. Many facilities plan to continue and enlarge these services into a hybrid form of exercise that encompasses both the home and the fitness facility.
It is not as if the business is booming at health clubs quite yet. Foot traffic is still down 3 percent compared to the beginning of 2019, but up 40 percent compared to 2021, according to Placer.ai, which tracks foot traffic in the retail gym space. And don't forget we are in the optimal time of the year for new memberships at health clubs. The New Year resolutions crowd is joining gyms once again. If history is any guide, half of these new members will fall by the wayside within three months.
However, one unintended positive consequence of the pandemic for the industry is that it did drive home to most Americans the importance of a healthy body. The impact of COVID and its various mutations has proven to be far more serious for those individuals who are unhealthy, obese, and with chronic illnesses. That may change the equation in the psyche of many. In short, in a post-pandemic world, a healthy body could be the difference between life and death for many Americans.
Bill Schmick is the founding partner of Onota Partners, Inc., in the Berkshires. His forecasts and opinions are purely his own and do not necessarily represent the views of Onota Partners Inc. (OPI). None of his commentary is or should be considered investment advice. Direct your inquiries to Bill at 1-413-347-2401 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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