Dec. 30, 2020 -- In most years, January means gyms are packed with newbies and their resolutions to finally get in shape.

But this year amid the pandemic, that New Year’s rush could instead be spread out over the coming months, industry experts, owners, and gymgoers say.

Like almost everything else, the fitness industry took a big hit this year. Many states ordered gyms and studios closed or restricted to stem the spread of COVID-19. Some closed permanently; a handful of chains closed or filed for bankruptcy protection.

Even when gyms have been allowed to open, many members have stayed home. Some have been racking up couch time, no doubt -- but many others have adapted to virtual training, or on their own with increased jogging or living-room yoga.

And artificial intelligence-backed high-tech home gyms and equipment like Peloton bikes are trying hard to be the jewels of the late-coronavirus shopping season.

The bottom line is: Anyone wanting help getting or staying fit will be able to find it this January, even if those typical January crowds don’t show up in brick-and-mortar locations. But some insiders and consumers are expecting a gradual, larger return to fitness centers over the coming months, as more Americans get COVID-19 vaccinations, allowing for some semblance of normality.

Via Zoom, ‘I Didn’t Miss a Beat’

Gymgoer Karen Juul of Stamford, CT, has been working out for more than 40 years. She personifies many of the trends that have played out this year.

“I didn’t miss a beat because of the pandemic,” says Juul, because Core Principles Personal Training, which she joined just a few months before, offered Zoom workouts right away. “We just segued right to the virtual workouts.”

When Core Principles reopened, Juul started going back. Now, she visits in person once a week and works out with the gym virtually once a week.

“You have to be creative at home” without equipment, she says. “But I work up a sweat at home as much as I do at the gym. I feel great. It’s very convenient to roll out of bed and flip on my computer.”

Core Principles owner Haylin Alpert is optimistic about January. It’s a small, independent studio that lets only six clients work out at a time, all socially distanced and wearing masks.

“I feel solid about the system we have in place,” he says. “There’s nothing fundamentally different about January.”

The Growing Importance of Virtual Training

“I don’t think there’s going to be a slam at the clubs like there normally is,” says Amy Williams, public relations manager for Life Time Fitness, one of the nation’s biggest chains, with 2 million members at 150 locations.

“But health and wellness are still going to be on a lot of people’s minds, maybe even more so because of how 2020 has been.”

Life Time launched a digital membership in December. It stresses cleanliness and safety practices, which many gyms and studios are also emphasizing, along with policies on social distancing and masks.

“We’re continuing to offer more options for members to participate in fitness inside and outside of the club on their own schedule -- through our 24GO app, 24GO TV and other virtual fitness options,” representatives of 24 Hour Fitness clubs said in an email. The chain filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in June and announced it would permanently close 130 U.S. gyms. “In the future, we’ll be offering nutrition and other wellness programs for mind and body health that members and consumers have told us they want as well.”

Virtual training had been hovering on the industry’s horizon for a while. COVID forced gyms to adopt it quickly. Customers adapted and liked it, and now Williams and others say it’s not going anywhere, regardless of what happens with COVID-19 and vaccinations.

It’s good for businesses that have survived, many say.

“This opens up massive potential because you can cast a significantly wider net to attract a target audience to train online and never set foot in your physical, brick-and-mortar space,” says Josh Leve, founder and CEO of the Association of Fitness Studios.

As for consumers, “Look for gym brands that can service you both in-person and digitally,” advises Rick Mayo, owner of Alloy Personal Training near Atlanta.

He says his gym transitioned online easily and early in the pandemic because he offers a more intimate space and service, with small groups and personal training.

“January won’t be as big as it usually is, but there will still be a bump,” Mayo predicts.

Optimism Depends on Geography

Gyms in Georgia were ordered closed for a short time early in the pandemic. Other states have enforced longer restrictions, including California, where many gyms are closed but offer virtual training.

Up to 40% of gym members are training at home, according to Bryan O’Rourke, a member of the board of directors of IHRSA, the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association.

Between 20% and 30% of gyms will close permanently because of the pandemic, he says.

IHRSA lobbied in Washington and helped form alliances in most states to advocate for gyms as healthy providers of essential services.

“It’s been frustrating, obviously,” O’Rourke says. “We’re not that big compared to Big Pharma or Big Tech. It’s tough to advocate. That’s why we’re trying to get better at it.”

IHRSA and others say the industry needs to educate policymakers about the transmission risks, as well as the consequences to social, mental, and physical health that people suffer without access.

He says he’s hopeful for gyms, depending on their geography, but says, “It’s not going to be like a typical year” in January.

‘We’re Hoping for a Big Rebound’

Rather, O’Rourke and others expect business to gradually improve through the winter and spring as more Americans are vaccinated.

“There will be a pent-up demand later in the year,” he says. “We’re hoping for a big rebound.”

Jeff O’Mara owns 12 Anytime Fitness locations in four states and is on the national chain’s Franchise Advisory Council.

“The vaccine is just for COVID,” he says. “But exercise is like a vaccine that helps with all kind of problems in life -- like high blood pressure, obesity, and type 2 diabetes. Facilities like ours and education can help change that.”

Gymgoer Adam Stewart of Atlanta has been working out in clubs for 20 years, and he agrees.

“Just watching the news and the predictions that the numbers are going up, I think that’s going to keep people on their sofas more than venturing out to the gym, but the die-hards will keep going as long as possible,” says Stewart. He says he’s grateful that he’s been able to work out at his gym after Georgia’s brief closures.

“We’ll probably see new faces in the gym once the vaccine is available to everyone. Maybe in June, we’ll see the spike that we normally see in January,” he says. “People will be ready to undo the damage of a year and a half of staying at home and overeating and Netflix”

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Business Insider: “Cyc Fitness and YogaWorks just filed for bankruptcy -- here are the 7 fitness and sporting goods companies that have folded in 2020 as the pandemic upends how Americans exercise.”

Karen Juul, Stamford, CT.

Haylin Alpert, owner, Core Principles Personal Training, Stamford, CT.

Amy Williams, public relations manager, Life Time Fitness.

24 Hour Fitness.

Josh Leve, founder and CEO, Association of Fitness Studios.

Rick Mayo, owner, Alloy Personal Training, Roswell, GA.

Bryan O’Rourke, board of directors, International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association.

Jeff O’Mara, franchise owner, Anytime Fitness.

Adam Stewart, Atlanta.

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