When the COVID-19 pandemic forced gyms to close, Cory Zuccaro was among the wave of people who turned their home into their own personal gym. Despite extensive delays and items being out of stock, he was able to add a squat rack, bumper plates, kettlebells and more to his house in Nashville, Tenn. 

“I will not go back to the gym. Only way would be if I had a job where I didn’t work from home anymore,” said Zuccaro, who has spent around $8,000 on equipment and construction on his workout room. 

Even with the vaccine rollout making returning to gyms safer, the outlook for health and fitness clubs is in jeopardy. As homes have been transformed into personal gyms, the pandemic has reimagined how and where people will workout. 

“In the near-term, gyms will be at the mercy of local regulators, given capacity limitations as well as mask-mandates,” said Landon Luxembourg, a consumer analyst who focuses on fitness and leisure at Third Bridge. “However, their fate also depends on the types of at-home sweat solutions consumers adopted during the pandemic.” 

Even when the pandemic is a thing of the past, it has shattered the status quo. For people who started working from home, many want to continue doing so going forward. This poses a problem for the gyms that count on members who commute. 

These factors have bruised the fitness industry as it was blindsided by the pandemic and the ensuing stay-at-home orders. Seventeen percent of the estimated 40,000 health clubs in the U.S. permanently closed by the end of 2020, according to a report from the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, a trade association representing the global health and fitness industry. 

The reason why people won’t return to their gyms just yet vary. The investment in equipment and flexibility to workout from home outweighs what gyms can offer for some. Others continue to be concerned about the risk of COVID-19 and its variant strains. A combination of investment, convenience and safety is also weighing on former gym-goers. 

“While vaccines have been seen as the light at the end of the tunnel, work from home policies will also have an impact,” said Luxembourg. “Re-establishing routines that involve a stop at the gym before or after work will be another part of the equation.”

Another reason people won’t come back to the gym in full force is due to interest in Internet-connected workout equipment from companies like Peloton and Mirror in a post-pandemic world. 

With gyms closed, Peloton’s bike offered users a way to exercise safely while creating a sense of community with other riders. Peloton’s membership base at the end of its 2020 fiscal year grew to approximately 3.1 million, up from 1.4 million members for the prior year. 

In the future, more people may decide that having a few essential items like dumbbells and a treadmill will be enough to maintain or exceed how they workout and forgo the perks that a gym can offer like an in-person community or access to a sauna. 

“I think that folks who have sunk cost on equipment will be slower to go back to gyms,” said Matt Powell, vice president and senior industry adviser for the NPD Group, a market research company. “If you bought a treadmill in June, why would you pay a gym $50 a month to run on their treadmill?” 

Now that more people have access to some of the same equipment that gyms have, they have less a reason to go back. 

Sales for home fitness equipment grew 84% in 2020, according to Powell. But demand was unable to match supply because in recent years businesses and manufacturers have kept inventories close to the current pace in sales. When orders for workout equipment spiked all at once, supply chains couldn’t keep up while the global increase in shipping traffic delayed orders even further. While much of this is tied to the pandemic, the issue won’t be immediately resolved after it’s contained. 

“These supply chain issues should be lifted slowly but surely as the pandemic slowly fades,” said Oren Klachkin, lead U.S. economist at Oxford Economics. 

In an effort to counter the pandemic’s impact, gyms are responding to the changing landscape. 

A November survey by ClubIntel of 2,000 gym members found that 58% of members who returned to a fitness facility reported that it offered digital fitness content. The expectation is that digital will continue to play for gyms as a more hybrid model of fitness emerges where returning gym goers continue to mix in workout routines they started over the pandemic. 

In Austin, Texas, Castle Hill Fitness 360 currently has around 250 active memberships – about half of what it had before the pandemic. Over the last year, General Manager Michele Melkerson-Granryd said the gym has moved some classes and private training sessions online to maintain engagement. 

She noted that members have enjoyed some online aspects such as reserving time to use space and equipment rather than the usual free-for-all. But Melkerson-Granryd believes that once more people become vaccinated, the chance to be in a gym again safely will draw them back from their virtual workouts. 

“People are ready to not be jumping around in their living room or bedroom anymore,” said Melkerson-Granryd.

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