On March 22nd, all New York and Connecticut non-essential businesses closed. Massachusetts followed suit the next day, leaving only the critical infrastructures open. The sudden, mandatory closing of business left many industries completed ill-prepared for closing their brick-and-mortar shops.
After the initial closures, it was clear some sectors within the U.S. workforce were going to suffer more losses than others – most notably gyms and health clubs. COVID-19 decimated this once thriving, consistently growing, and often recession-proof industry as clubs lost members and sales. With their doors closed, revenues evaporated, this sector fell to its knees hard. Unlike other service industries, gyms can’t resort to takeout, drive-through, or gift cards to weather the storm, resulting in closures and layoffs, both temporary and permanent.
Gold’s Gym, for example, recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and other large chains may be following suit (9). Further complicating the matter, gyms are often staffed with self-employed or independent workers who are not directly employed by the gym, and therefore, may not have been eligible for initial unemployment benefits or similar stimulus packages. Across the U.S., around 80% of personal trainers work on a freelance basis (15).
A Thriving Industry
The timing of COVID-19 was especially bitter, given that gym membership sales were still rising in late January 2020. Pre-COVID, the health and wellness industry was seeing a boom comparable to the sharp rise in the gym, health, and fitness culture of the 1980s and 90s (1). Case in point, in 2018, 82.1 million adults spent an estimated $28.6 billion on gym memberships, an increase of 2.6% annually. In the same year, consumers visited their health clubs more than six billion times.
Based on the 2020 IHRSA report, about 1 in 5 Americans belonged to a health club or studio (18), which fueled a personal training market valued at $9 billion (15). Overall, the fitness industry was seeing continual expansion with an increase in the number of fitness facilities, total industry revenue, and consumer growth as society places more value on health and wellbeing (2,3).
”recent survey of 10,000 gym-goers found that over half said they do not plan on returning to their gyms when they reopen.ref (10)
In the White House guidelines for reopening America released in mid-April, gyms are listed as part of phase one in the three-part reopening plan, with the designation that they must “adhere to strict physical distancing and sanitation protocols” to operate (6). There were no set dates on when these phases would start; instead, it’s up to states and regional officials. In states such as Texas and Georgia, which have reopened gyms, they are following strict procedures. Namely enforcing measures such as taking temperatures of customers/staff, restricting access to showers, locker rooms, and some equipment, as well as requiring masks and gloves to be worn, reducing capacity, and mandating hourly cleaning (4,5). National gym chains like SoulCycle, Equinox, Orangetheory, and Lifetime have all released protocols of their own, with some facilities even requiring members to sign coronavirus-specific waivers of liability, in case of infection (8,9).
The risk of infection at gyms is undeniable. According to Waleed Javaid, M.D., director of infection prevention and control at N.Y.’s Mount Sinai Hospital, going to gyms and studios, it’s likely going to be different “for the foreseeable future until we have a clear medication or clear vaccination available” (6). Moving forward, it will all come down to your personal risk/reward profile: how much risk are you willing to take to get back in the gym?
Considering it’s nearly impossible to maintain social distancing in most gyms or to avoid close contact with a workout partner or personal trainer, public exercise options seem unwelcoming. Additionally, the 6-foot distancing rule was created for standard breathing rates, not excessive exhaling performed during any exercise. Research suggests the virus can remain in the air for up to three hours, and droplets on stainless steel or plastic surfaces can linger for up to 72 hours (9).
Don’t forget; gyms are already cesspools when it comes to germs and cleanliness. A 2017 study found that there are 362 times more bacteria colony-forming units on typical free weight equipment than found on most toilet seats; therefore, the decision to return gets murkier. Cardio machines and yoga mats were equally high on the list, in case you thought Studio fitness was a safer option (7).
The health risks inherent in reopening gyms is on everyone’s mind as a survey published a month ago of 10,000 gym-goers found that over half said they do not plan on returning to their gyms when they reopen (10). Further, nearly 40% of all gym members have already canceled their memberships (10).
Accordingly, the future of health clubs remains cloudy, resulting in at-home exercise as the likely substitute moving forward.
Remote Training and At-home Fitness
Remote or virtual training exploded in the last decade, making it easier than ever for consumers to invest in their physical wellbeing and overall fitness. COVID-19 only accelerated this movement, evident in the fact that most retailers sold out their exercise-related equipment within the first weeks of quarantine and on-demand fitness platforms boomed.
Peloton, for example, one of the original innovators of the on-demand at-home fitness, saw sales jump over 66% in their first-quarter earnings. BeachBody, a streaming on-demand workout platform, has seen a 300% increase in memberships and a 100% surge of class participation since mid-March. ClassPass, a subscription service for numerous fitness classes and gyms, started to live-stream workouts with a jump of more than 50% of digital customers joining virtual courses (9).
Gyms and Studios that are surviving during quarantine are doing so by turning virtual, using office conferencing video tools to train clients, athletes, and groups. Virtual training, in general, continues to earn fans among fitness professionals and consumers alike. Prevention magazine performed a survey of personal trainers, asking them to predict the biggest fitness trends of 2020. The results: “Virtual training is about to take over” (16).
Virtual Training: How Personal Trainers can benefit from this movement
Convenience and Flexibility:
A 2018 market survey of personal trainers found that one in five PTs said clients stopped working with them because of time constraints. Simply being able to train clients with the flexibility to fit their schedules would help PT’s retain customers (17). If your clients are busy, can’t make it into the gym, or have trouble squeezing in a workout, training them right on your phone is the next best option, providing the accommodation needed to maintain the relationship.
Further, convenient, online booking is rated as a top priority for consumers in terms of consumer health. People are even willing to switch health coaches solely to find ones that provide user-friendly online scheduling (12). Self-scheduling apps and digital interfaces were estimated to be valued at $3.2 billion in 2019 (11).
Over a third of personal trainers lose business because clients can no longer afford their services and it’s the leading reason clients provide when choosing to end the relationship (17). This affordability point mirrors leading industry research demonstrating individuals quit their gym memberships due to cost and not using the club (18).
Remote, online training bridges the gap between long-term affordability and value of services. While it’s up to the trainer, digital sessions often are priced separately than in-person coaching. This financial flexibility is advantageous for the trainer as well, because a fully booked schedule of returning clients signifies high revenue. Time is a commodity. Any time spent onboarding new clients, building programs as well as relationships, resulting in a high turnover rate is problematic for business. Downtime, unbooked hours, or time spent constantly tracking down new, short-term clients is unproductive and leads to revenue shortfalls.
The wearable technology market was valued at 27.91 billion in 2019 and is expected to reach 74.03 billion by 2025 (13). The annual ACSM’s 2020 Trend predictions confirm that wearable tech was rated the number one trend again by personal trainers, for the fourth year in a row (14). Tracking your clients’ journey is not going anywhere, and wearables allow personal trainers to view progress remotely. Consider exploring how you can incorporate wearable tech into workouts sessions as clients progress towards their goals.
While COVID-19 has transformed how society interacts, emphasizing at-home activities, it has, in turn, propelled the fitness industry ten years ahead, forcing some much-needed tech progressions. Before this pandemic hit the world stage, innovations were already sweeping across the fitness sector, and influential trends were taking hold. Although the future of gyms remains unresolved, personal training is not going away any time soon. Nevertheless, the field needs to readjust to a changing climate, just as we all have done in 2020.
The instruments for adapting to this new climate are possible such as office conferencing tools, booking platforms, and wearable data. However, currently, trainers are still left placing all those pieces together to maximize their remote clients’ training experience. This is why Athelticus was born. Our mission is to fill that gap by evolving the way athletes and health coaches work together remotely to improve their overall health and performance with a unique video experience built specifically for the active lifestyle.
Undoubtedly, gym closures and uncertainties will affect personal training, but this $9 billion a year industry will triumph (15). It’s a workforce energized with creative, hardworking, and enthusiastic people keen on supporting clients as they achieve a better version of themselves.