With many gyms open again—some after long closures—IDEA put three questions to five fitness pros from around the country:

  1. Are you now operating at full capacity?
  2. How are clients adapting as they return to the gym?
  3. How would you sum up the state of play as it relates to COVID-19 and the fitness industry at this time?

The interviewees were Mark Fisher, owner of Mark Fisher Fitness in New York City; Charlie Hoolihan, director of personal training for the Pelican Athletic Club in Mandeville, Louisiana; June Kahn, owner of Center Your Body Pilates in Louisville, Colorado; Pamela Light, MA, group instructor and personal trainer in Rancho Palos Verdes, California; and Darian Parker, PhD, NSCA-CPT, owner of Parker’s Personal Training in Blaine, Washington.

Here is a snapshot of how these seasoned professionals see their current services, their clients’ comfort level and the industry at large as of late July 2021. We have lightly edited some responses for length or clarity.

Are Gyms Open All the Way?

Parker: Yes, I am operating at full capacity or slightly beyond my capacity—but I was operating at full capacity during the pandemic. I switched to a majority live virtual format with clients about 4 years ago, so I had a head start in that regard. This proved really beneficial for me. I could show proficiency and validity in my live virtual services, so it was easier to sell this format to potential clients.

Kahn: My Pilates studio is a full-service boutique studio. Yes, we’ve been at full capacity as of June 10. Prior to that, we were at 50%. We still offer online options, so we feel we have something to offer everyone. The online program has positively impacted the studio and created an additional ancillary income for us. We will certainly continue with it.

Fisher: We are indeed (finally! after 15 months!) operating at full capacity.

Hoolihan: Our multi-use fitness center programming has been operating at fairly full capacity since January 2021. Group fitness training classes like CrossFit®, Metabolic Strength (free-weight strength programming) and BURN (HIIT) came back really quickly after Louisiana’s fitness center quarantine was lifted. They were fully attended by September 2020.

Studio fitness classes—indoor cycling, Les Mills, yoga, etc.—took a while to get back to full speed. Now that our state mandates have largely been lifted, those classes seem to be operating close to capacity.

Our club membership went from a 25% drop when quarantine was imposed in March 2020 to almost pre-quarantine levels this July.

The Gym Is Back, Baby! . . . Sort Of

Light: I work both as an instructor in a gym and as a personal trainer out of my home. So I will give answers for both.

The gym is back, baby! . . . sort of. All our classes are back inside, but we are not near the full capacity of pre-pandemic days. Rather than three classes per hour in our various studios, we are offering one class per hour. Classes require reservations, and some—like indoor cycling—are set at a lower capacity than in the past. We also have far fewer instructors, so those of us who are working are overextended with our own classes, and additionally we’re needed for subbing. Class reservations are maxing out, often with long waitlists. I am hoping that with the increased demand, the schedule and instructor roster will expand.

My little at-home training gym has never been busier. My client roster has increased threefold compared with pre-pandemic levels. Clients are coming more times per week, they are more consistent with their appointments, and I have a waitlist of people who want a time slot. Many own new pieces of equipment for at-home workouts, such as a Peloton® or Mirror, but also like an in-person experience. Many of my clients had previously taken my classes at the gym and do not intend to return, preferring the combination of personalized attention and in-home exercise.

 

Gyms open interviewees

Fitness professionals share their strategies as gyms open across the country.

How Are Clients Adapting as Gyms Open?

Fisher: Our returning clients (or Ninjas, as we call them) have jumped right back in. Admittedly, these are individuals who have self-selected to return, so no real shocker there. But it’s been gratifying to see our space buzzing with happy, appreciative Ninjas.

Light: Our club offered a good schedule of classes outside over the past year, and members who attended those classes have felt mixed on moving back inside. Some are happy to have the more comfortable indoor conditions and better stereo system; others miss the fresh air and festival-like atmosphere of our outdoor tented pavilions. Sadly, some outdoor exercisers have decided they are not ready to come inside and have been staying away.

For the many members walking through the door for the first time in more than a year, it is a hallelujah moment punctuated by hugs and high-fives. A member who had been taking my kickboxing classes regularly online throughout the pandemic said she felt like she was flying while taking the class in person. It was so much more motivational and less of a grind. Overall, it is a real mixed bag, and there is a feeling of transition.

Parker: I mostly work remotely with my live virtual training business, so I’m not in gyms much these days. However, I have clients who are heading back into the office space. We are now navigating changes to their schedules and how to integrate live virtual into their workday. I do have some in-person clients now, and the return to in-person training has been fairly smooth.

Masks and Other Safety Protocols

Kahn: We are a small studio. We require masks for those who are unvaccinated. Since we are in a building with a few other businesses and we share a lobby, we request that members walk into the building with a mask. They can take it off when they are on their equipment. If they leave to use the bathroom, they are to put their masks on, as other businesses share the bathrooms. We have yet to have a single issue, and all clients are happy to comply.

Hoolihan: Clients have been fully “adapted” since our mask restrictions were lifted in May 2021. The post-quarantine protocol in Louisiana was never very stringent for club attendees: Wear a mask into the gym, take it off while using an exercise station, then put it back on when moving from station to station. Employees had to wear masks the entire time.

Light: All of my at-home training clients are vaccinated, but many of us have children too young to be vaccinated. With things opening back up, we have had to be extra cautious with any summer sniffles or possible exposures. We are grateful for the rapid COVID-19 tests.

For workplace safety guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, see cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/workplaces-businesses/index.html.

With Gyms Open, What’s the Industry State of Play?

Hoolihan: It’s probably an even-odds state of play. If states return to business closures as a way of preventing a surge, it will be detrimental to the in-person model of fitness. Given some people’s reluctance to get vaccinated and wear masks, we may not be able to achieve the population immunity needed to avoid further surges.

Parker: I would say, from my many discussions with colleagues/associates and my own observations, that people are re-entering the fitness space slowly. There is still some hesitation from consumers about getting back to the gym. There are also people who went back as soon as they were allowed to. Overall, I think the state of the industry is a mixed bag.

Kahn: Over the past year and a half, I have seen small facilities close their doors permanently, with some moving to online options. Others have created hybrid options. I feel that COVID-19 has had and will continue to have an effect on people returning to the gym. I feel that many have found alternatives to going to gyms and studios. In Colorado, many people have opted to do more things outdoors.

From my studio’s standpoint, we are increasing in revenue. However, we are still not up to what we were prior to COVID.

Fisher: I would describe the state of play as “continuing to vary wildly based on your market.” Certainly this is true when you look at the international scene, where you have some countries or cities in total or modified lockdown and others completely unrestricted. But even in the U.S., based on the local restrictions and a given subculture’s relationship with the pandemic, we’re seeing some studios see a gold rush and others see a trickle of interest (for now).

Strength in Specialization

Kahn: Our online presence has now declined, because many of our members want to be back in the studio to use the equipment.

We offer [post-]rehab sessions in addition to group and private/small-group training. I believe our specialty services had an impact on why so many are now returning in person. Whether that continues in the fall is to be determined. I feel there are still people who enjoy working out in a facility. However, it has become more apparent to me that many are satisfied with other options.

Learning and Growing From Change

Kahn: COVID-19 has forced us to do business differently. We’ve learned to be more aware and conscientious of what is right for our members and to create an environment that instills safety and trust.

Light: There is a sense of readiness for self-care and an increased awareness of how important fitness is toward that goal, as well as how quickly our bodies can deteriorate when neglected.

This is a time of opportunity for fitness professionals. For more than a year, I was waiting. Waiting for classes to be back on the schedule, waiting for colleagues to be rehired, waiting for a return. It was only recently I realized it will not be a return—it will be a rebirth. The gym will build back to a busy schedule. But it will not be the same classes offered at the same times by the same instructors. People have changed, both the clients and the professionals.

Looking Forward

Parker: I believe virtual-based fitness will not go away. People have now experienced something that they didn’t really give a chance before. Now they know it works. The future of fitness is a hybrid approach. With gyms open, forward-thinking fitness businesses will incorporate both in-person and virtual services. That will capture a larger net of people and be better for all parties involved.

Light: If there was ever anything you wanted to change as a fitness professional, now is the time to do it. Take what you have learned in the last year, listen to the voice inside that is telling you the best move forward, and go for it. The world needs passionate fitness professionals, and COVID-19 has cleared the deck. With demand ramping back up, in-person opportunities abound, and the addition of virtual training creates even more space for opportunity.

Your Turn: Are Gyms Open in Your Area?

If so, are classes back to full capacity? If you trained clients online during pandemic closures, do you plan to continue those sessions now? With gyms open, will you stick with a hybrid model or recommit fully to live training? How is the latest news on the Delta variant affecting your professional decisions and your clients’ behavior? Share your perspective by adding your comments.

 

Kate Watson is the executive managing editor of IDEA Publications.