Jul 9, 2021 - Technology
Column / Signal Boost

The post-pandemic fight for your workout

Illustration of a woman doing yoga on mat that is half a cellphone

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The gym industry, battered by a year of pandemic-related closures and customer losses, faces an added hurdle as it looks to recover: the rise of home workout technology.

The big picture: Health clubs in the U.S. saw revenue drop by more than half last year. Meanwhile, Americans working at home started getting in shape there as well, Peloton sold bikes as fast as it could make them, and Apple started selling fitness subscriptions.

Driving the news:

Now, as the U.S. reopens, gyms face the challenge of having to win back lost customers.

  • Many gyms turned to tech as well during the pandemic, offering streaming or on-demand fitness classes for those who couldn't or wouldn't come in person.

By the numbers: Expanding to online services only helped stem the bleeding for the gym industry, which has lost an estimated 1 million jobs.

  • Eight major chains filed for bankruptcy and 17% of fitness centers closed permanently, according to industry trade group IHRSA.
  • Business is recovering, but it isn't back to pre-pandemic levels — and the industry hasn't won the kind of government stimulus given to the restaurant and travel industries.

Yes, but: Don't count out the gym, says Chris Craytor, the CEO of Charlottesville, Virginia-based ACAC Fitness and Wellness, which owns a dozen gyms in the mid-Atlantic region.Just as people want to eat in restaurants after a year of take out, Craytor said people want the benefits of doing their workout in person."Going to a health club is about more than just the treadmill or weights," said Craytor, who is also on the board of the IHRSA. "It's about the sense of community, the friends you make there."

  • Craytor acknowledges that health clubs will need to "up their technology game" and that it is tough for cash-strapped gym owners to make the needed investments.

Between the lines: This isn't an entirely new challenge for the gym industry. Before there was Peloton, there was Bowflex, and the exercise bike before that.

But the new tech-based workout options offer something that earlier versions lacked: Because they increasingly rely on networked apps, they're challenging in-person gyms where they're strongest — that very "sense of community" Craytor cited.

What's next: Gyms are trying to augment in-person service with on-demand and live classes that patrons can do from home.

  • Among the companies aiding in the effort is Xplor Technologies, which helps boutique gyms add online components to their mix.

Gyms need to build a brand and service that is consistent both offline and in-person, says Andy Swansburg, the product chief for Xplor's wellness unit.

  • "You want customers to be loyal to your brand, so when they choose on-demand they choose you," he said.

Go deeper: The future of fitness is at a fork in the road

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