Fitness

Gyms that survived pandemic steadily get back in shape

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New York – One day in January, a once-regular customer at Fuel Training Studio in Newburyport, Massachusetts, stopped in to take a “shred” class. She hadn’t stepped foot in the gym since before the pandemic.

The customer told owners Julie Bokat and Jeanne Carter that she had been working out at home alone in her basement but had slowly become less motivated and sometimes exercised in pajamas without breaking a sweat.

“I was getting bored of what I was doing, so here I am,” Bokat quoted her as saying. She’s heard similar comments from customers who’ve returned after more than two years of working out in a basement or a converted home office.

Fuel Training Studio owners Julie Bokat, left, and Jeanne Carter watch a fitness class inside their gym, Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023, in Newburyport, Mass.

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

They weren’t alone. Gyms and fitness studios were among the hardest hit businesses during the pandemic, hammered by lockdowns and then limits on the number of people they could allow in for classes and workouts. Unlike bars, restaurants and live venues, there was no industry-specific federal aid given to health clubs. Twenty-five percent of U.S. health clubs and studios have closed permanently since the pandemic began, according to the National Health & Fitness Alliance, an industry group.

For gyms that made it through the worst, signs of stability are afoot. Foot traffic in fitness studios is still down about 3% from 2019 so far in January, but up 40% compared with 2021, according to data from Placer.ai, which tracks retail foot traffic.

Jeanne Carter, co-owner of Fuel Training Studio, in Newburyport, Mass., right, works out on a stationary exercise bike during a spinning class in a parking lot outside the gym, Monday, Sept. 21, 2020, in Newburyport, Mass.

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

“I feel pretty positive that man, if we sustained our community during like the darkest of days, it can only go up from there, and it has,” Bokat said.

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