Gyms and fitness studios have been among the hardest hit businesses during the pandemic, hit by lockdowns and then restrictions.

NEW YORK — One January, a once-regular client of Fuel Training Studio in Newburyport, Mass., stopped by to take a shredding class. She hasn’t stepped foot in the gym since then pandemic.

The client told owners Julie Bocat and Jeanne Carter that she used to work out at home alone in her basement, but gradually became less motivated and sometimes worked out in her pajamas without breaking a sweat.

“I got bored of what I was doing, and here I am,” Bokat quoted her as saying. She’s heard similar comments from clients who have returned after more than two years in a basement or converted home office.

During the “dark days” of the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, Bokat and Carter moved their equipment outside to hold classes in parking lots and in a greenhouse they built for the winter. They also held classes online, but attendance still dropped by 70%. They weren’t sure the business would survive.

They were not alone. Gyms and fitness studios have been among the hardest-hit businesses during the pandemic, hit by lockdowns and then restrictions on the number of people they can admit to classes and workouts. Unlike bars, restaurants, and concert venues, health clubs received no federal aid. Twenty-five percent of health clubs and studios in the U.S. have closed permanently since the start of the pandemic, according to the National Health & Fitness Alliance, an industry group.

For gyms that have weathered the worst, there are signs of stability. Fitness studio foot traffic was still down about 3% from 2019 in January, but up 40% from 2021, according to data from retail foot traffic tracker

At Fuel Training, the greenhouse is gone, as are the spin classes in the parking lot. Attendance is still down about 35% from 2019, but Bokat and Carter say more people are coming every day. Gym-goers say they miss the sense of community a gym can provide.

“I strongly believe that if we keep our community together in the darkest days, it can only increase, and it has,” Bokat said.

Many gyms and fitness studios have had to quickly diversify their offerings to attract customers during the pandemic — and some say the changes have worked so well they’re here to stay.

Guy Kodio, who owns NYC Personal Training Gym in New York City, went from nine to four trainers during the pandemic and had to switch to online training. In 2021, he moved to another space with a lower rent and began leasing the space to others in the health care industry, including physical therapists and massage therapists.

“Everyone was worried during COVID, so we just need to tone it down a little bit,” he said. “We had to change the model to be successful — almost take a step back to take another step forward.”

It is now back to six coaches, but plans to maintain the new business model by renting out space to hedge its bets in case of another downturn.

In his new space, Codio is limiting the number of people on the floor to 10-12 people to make customers feel more comfortable from a COVID perspective. But most of the clients he sees “have gotten over COVID” and aren’t as worried about getting sick as they used to be, he says.

“If a person is distressed, there are measures we take, we have masks or we wear them at different hours when there are fewer people,” he said.

For Jessica Benheim of Lumos Yoga & Barre in Philadelphia, some changes related to the pandemic have led to a boom in business. Not only has it returned to pre-pandemic attendance levels, it recently opened a second location.

Demand will normalize in the summer of 2022, Benheim said. She raised the price of additional sessions by $5 to $25 to offset higher costs for staff wages and cleaning supplies, but says that hasn’t deterred customers.

Benheim credits two pandemic changes that have contributed to the recovery in demand: outdoor activities and limited class sizes. She started outdoor classes from April to October during the pandemic at a nearby community garden out of necessity, but now has no plans to stop.

“People just love to be outside, especially when it’s really nice in the spring, even in the summer when it’s hot,” she said.

Classes are still limited to 12 people, up from 18 before the pandemic. She is making up for the decline by offering more classes at her two studios.

“I think it just gives everybody a little bit more space, like, you know, just a couple of extra inches between the mats, people really appreciate that.”

When the pandemic first began, Vincent Micelli, owner of the Body Blueprint gym in Pelham, New York, expected 30% of his clients would not return. He underestimated.

Micelli estimates that about 30% of its members have left Pelham, a bedroom community near New York, and moved elsewhere. Another 30% changed their habits and stopped exercising altogether.

It is now seeing slow growth similar to pre-pandemic levels of about 5% month-on-month as the home business loses its luster. It is still down about 35% from February 2020. Most new clients are people who haven’t worked out before, he said.

“It gives us a whole new way of doing business,” he said. Personal training is developing – up to 60%. And he focuses on fewer classes that are more tailored to his current clients, such as a strength and conditioning class called “Strength in Numbers” for women 40 and older.

He says people’s interest in health overrides their fear of getting sick at the gym.

“I think the severity of the disease in unhealthy people over the last few years is also allowing people who were not into fitness to pay more attention to it,” he said.

Micheli’s business has recovered to the point where he is ready to start opening other locations.

“I think exercise will never go away,” he said.

Previous articleAstronaut Buzz Aldrin will marry his longtime sweetheart on his 93rd birthday
Next articleA 22-year-old college graduate has been missing since a “polar fall” in California