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Will We Ever Go Back To The Gym?

A look into what workout classes will look like for the foreseeable future, thanks to COVID-19.

Quarantine has changed a lot within our lives — from our work routines to even relationships (a zoom date, anyone?) The same applies to the way we exercise. Given that having a gym built into your home isn't a reality for most, making a trip to the gym or a fitness class was just an everyday part of life.

While many have resorted to outdoor runs, others have simply turned to the numerous free workouts on YouTube. Then there are those that have retained memberships to their fitness studios that are now live streaming a lot of their classes, only really requiring minimal equipment such as a yoga mat, some weights, and exercise bands, among others. Not a big investment.

There’s also equipment-free HIIT or body-weight based workouts, upending the familial and conventional structure of the fitness world. Boxing, barre, pilates, sculpt, yoga — anything is possible to do from home as long as there’s a working internet connection.

“When COVID hit, we quickly pivoted to find a way to bring digital services to our consumers,” says Mindbody CEO, Rick Stollmeyer. The health and wellness app allows users to book spots across different studios, spas and salons across the country. “We added a new search filter to the Mindbody app and website to help consumers easily find and book virtual fitness classes and wellness experiences. With that feature, it’s now possible to explore all dimensions of holistic wellness regardless of where you’re based in the world.”

Akin Akman, Co-founder at AARMY, a new boutique workout expressed similar sentiments. “We immediately pivoted to a livestream training option the morning after we closed our NY & LA facilities,” he tells NYLON. “Since then, we have been live for over 110 days with multiple hours of live programming from all our AARMY coaches to keep our team strong and positive.”

But while most fitness companies have to adapt and shift their models to fit the current times, there are some that were always designed to operate from the comfort of your home.

Stryde, a customizable, “cost-effective” bike and app launched as an affordable alternative to likes of Peleton. While the company has partnered with an array of studios and gyms that offer a wider range of classes than when at-home, being able to get a workout in without stepping out of your house has always been its USP.

“In a time where people are confined to smaller spaces indoors, especially in metropolitan cities, it’s crucial to maintain a sense of balance with cardio and exercise,” a spokesperson at Stryde tells NYLON. “Stationary cycling is one of the most efficient ways to break a sweat without leaving one’s home. With the technology enhancements, riders can customize their experience while challenging themselves through various class levels.”

With the pandemic in full swing, the company has now exponentially expanded its otherwise limited at-home offering of classes, as have hundreds and thousands of boutique studios all over the country, including New York City's trendiest classes, from The Class by Taryn Toomey to Sky Ting Yoga. The latter launched Sky Ting TV on July 1, a subscription service offering unlimited yoga classes from the brands influencer-like founders and staff for $20/month.

But now, as parts of the country begin to re-open (and subsequently re-close) gyms and fitness studios, the question remains, will customers come back?

Mega gyms and boutique studios like Equinox and SoulCycle have already laid out potential re-opening plans that include separate workout areas, socially distanced workouts, temperature checks, pre-booked workout slots. But will that be enough, as we straddle a possible second wave of the virus? Gyms are a hotbed of germ activity where respiratory illnesses transfer at a higher rate than restaurants or offices. Even as things re-open, many are just not comfortable heading back.

“To be honest, I have been moving my business more towards online for a while before Covid-19, so I don't know if I foresee going back to in person nutrition consults,” says Alana Kessler, nutritionist, wellness expert, founder at her personal nutrition and yoga-based practice, BeWell. “As far as teaching yoga, I do hope I will be able to teach actual humans soon. I think it will be something that varies person to person as far as easing back into teaching.”

Kessler is not solitary in her hesitation to resume in-person visits. According to a recent consumer survey by Harrison Co, a consumer-focused investment bank. 34 percent of gym members have or plan to cancel their memberships after COVID-19. That means more than 20 million gym memberships cancellations.

So what are the other alternatives? At The Fit In, a boutique fitness studio in Brooklyn's Bed-Stuy, founder Ife O has been sampling socially-distanced workouts out on a parking lot. Clients are expected to wear masks and comply with the safety guidelines. It may sound complex to execute, but so far, O seems to have pulled it off with completely sold out slots, and people registering in droves.

"The reason why our classes are popular is not just because the workout is good, but because it's a time to socialize," she tells NYLON. "The time to build connects and be around others that can motivate you. It also allows you to take yourself completely away from your other responsibilities and focus on yourself 100 percent without distraction. These are all the things you miss in virtual classes."

This has also transitioned into becoming an unintentional marketing strategy for those passing by and unaware of the studio, inquiring and signing up to stretch and get their hearts pumping outside. O is now considering expanding into other outdoor spaces and neighborhoods near some of the instructors to conduct more sessions.

Still, with summer in full swing, it isn't exactly without challenges. "With the summer heat, your hours to teach are pretty limited," she says. "Mid-day was a popular time for us in-studio, but without AC, we have to stick with morning or evening sessions. And our classes are weather dependent, so if there’s heavy rain, there are no classes held. But we’ve been lucky so far that those cancellations have been limited. You’re also sharing the space with others and being respectful of that."

The Fit In is trying its best to mimmic the very aspects of an in-person workout that are irreplaceable. The general sense of community, for instance, that a number of boutique fitness experiences rely on. Those, despite technological advancement, simply cannot transport onto a computer screen or tablet, much like hanging out with your friends. Still, a palpable shift in the way the industry is structured is inevitable, but at what cost?

“I anticipate the future of the wellness industry will be characterized by less brick and mortar locations, smaller classes, hybrid online/offline experiences, home-based delivery, corporate wellness, and a trend towards democratization,” says Stollmeyer. “This wave will be enabled by AI/ML, streaming videos and connected devices.”

A recent Mindbody survey additionally indicated that 93 percent of its consumers said they would go back to their previous routines once businesses reopen, however 43 percent noted that their previous routine will now tack on a virtual element — a huge behavioral shift since 2019.

“This data shows that, while in-studio workouts and services will remain highly in-demand, virtual wellness will be a major part of the landscape moving forward,” he adds. “The businesses that will survive will be those that can adapt to this trend via hybrid memberships inclusive of both in-person and virtual offerings.”