Fitness & Excercise

How COVID-19-Inspired Home Workouts Could Decimate the Gym Industry

When the shelter-in-place order went out in March, John Passaro and his fiancé, Megan Soll, began building their home gym. He wanted a Peloton bike, and she wanted a Mirror, which offers a wider variety of on-demand home workouts. So they decided to buy both, along with a set of adjustable Bowflex dumbbells, a weight bench, and foam-backed rubber matting for the floor.

As they settled into their new workout routines, Passaro began most days with 30 minutes on the Peloton. Afterward he’d use Centr, the Chris Hemsworth approved fitness app, for resistance training.

Passaro has a longstanding membership at his local gym in Hoboken, NJ. But soon after launching the new at-home program, his weight began falling. He’s down about 10 pounds, and he hopes to lose another 10. But he’ll do it at home. As soon as his gym opens back up, he plans to cancel his $90/month membership. Soll will do the same. She actually has two memberships—one near her office and one near their apartment. She’ll cancel them both.

If Passaro and Soll seem exceptional in their commitment to working out at home—you’d need about $4,000 to replicate their setup, plus $88 in monthly subscription fees—it’s only by degree. In the wake of COVID-19, millions of fit-seekers were recently ejected from their gyms, and many responded by investing in new equipment for their homes and apartments.

ICON Fitness, the company that owns Nordictrack, Proform, and iFit, announced it experienced a 600 percent sales spike in April. During the first three weeks of isolation, Affirm, a company that offers financing for e-tail purchases, issued 163 percent more loans for Mirrors, Tonals, Tempos, and other big-ticket fitness items. The New York Times recently reported people were panic-buying Pelotons, while brands like Target and Dick’s Sporting Goods have struggled to keep basic fitness equipment in stock.

The suite of options runs deep. Boxers are following programs like FightCamp and EBF Live. Virtual-reality users are using a game-like cardio program called Supernatural on Oculus Quest. And cyclists have embraced platforms like Rouvy and Zwift so enthusiastically that Nike recently announced it was launching an indoor cycling shoe (out June 1).

For many, techy home fitness is proving more enjoyable than traditional gyms. Ryan Light, CEO of the Venice, CA, apparel brand Pistol Lake, bought an Ergatta, a $1,999 smart rowing machine that uses gaming tricks to blunt the sting of cardio. “There’s a leaderboard and you race against other people’s times, so there’s a competitive angle that really works for me,” says Light. “That and a small lifting routine at the house has basically replaced my need for a gym.”

Other recent home-workout converts are surprised to find they can save money without sacrificing quality. “I was paying $80 for a gym that was overcrowded and lacked the basics,” says Caitlin Drown, who signed up for Sweat, a women-specific fitness platform that runs $19.99 per month. “Now I have an app that’s designed for working out wherever I am.” Drown, who works with an environmental non-profit in Boston, can complete the workouts with just a yoga mat, resistance bands, and dumbbells.

Stories like this signal a degree of doom for brick-and-mortar gyms and studios. While their members are busy rearranging furniture to make room for new devices, health clubs are reeling from the blow of forced closures. Gold’s Gym permanently shut down about 30 locations, and in May, it filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Reporting from CNBC indicates that 24 Hour Fitness might be close behind, while Business Insider confirms YogaWorks is closing its New York City locations.

“The reality is that a lot of studios don’t have a lot of working capital,” says Bryan O’Rourke, a fitness analyst and board member with the International Health Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA). “In markets like New York, it was already competitive to a fault. A lot of studios are going to suffer. They won’t re-emerge. That’s very real.”

To make the struggle worse, clubs that do re-open will generally be forced to operate under strict new rules that members may find inconvenient. Texas is forcing gyms to operate at 25 percent capacity. In Tennessee, officials are asking gyms to question customers for signs of illness and check temperatures at the door. Equinox will limit members to three workouts per week (booked in advance), and according to Vice, many gyms plan to cut back on luxuries like yoga mats, free towels, and toiletries. Plus, members will be required to wear masks during their workouts.

With new rules, new fears, and shiny new equipment at home, many people will decide the gym isn’t worth the effort. That’s Passaro’s conclusion. Even when gyms were operating as normal, he had to wake up at 5 a.m. to exercise before work. “You end up loafing around and strangers want to strike up conversations,” he says. “And then you just end up standing around waiting for the squat rack. It’s such a waste of time.”

But there’s never a wait for his Peloton. What’s more, the bike’s data-driven platform reminds him of the excitement he felt when he used to swim competitively. “It feels like you’re racing yourself,” he says. “You see your stats, you know where you should be pacing, and you can use that to push yourself harder.” Plus he can sleep in an extra half hour, and whip up a post-workout protein shake or smoothie as soon as he hops off the bike.

The argument isn’t that COVID-19 invented home workouts. But it’s likely that the pandemic has dramatically shifted the fitness industry’s momentum toward the sleek category of personal fitness technology. For most, a home gym calls to mind an incline bench and a stack of iron plates in a garage. But the best options today are powered by artificial intelligence and on-demand workouts. With your permission, tools like Tonal, Tempo, and Ergatta aim to turn you into an exercise addict. Screens and sensors conspire to track your movements and provide real-time feedback, with leaderboards that tap your competitive drive, progress reports to keep you accountable, and real-life instructors compelling you to, “dig deep!” and, “push harder!”

The term “gym equipment” no longer fits. These are “fitness devices.” They share more DNA with an iPad than they do with a steel squat cage, and they’re designed so beautifully that you won’t mind setting them up in your living room.

The big players in fitness have already begun mounting their defence. Equinox, Planet Fitness, Anytime, and the like all have app-based workouts you can do at home, and following in Peloton’s footsteps, SoulCycle recently announced its own $2,500 on-demand bike. But aside from a few major players, how many health clubs have the resources to launch a respectable technology division?

Health-club loyalists shouldn’t be overly worried about the end of gyms, says O’Rourke. In Georgia, the week after the state re-opened, work-out traffic was already back to about 50 percent, and China experienced a similar recovery. Those are promising figures.

But looking forward, expect to see the at-home option grow increasingly more enticing. “If you have to get in the car to go to a fitness class—well, you might do that every now and then,” says O’Rourke. But you might also choose to walk down the hallway for an even better experience.

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