The Fitness Challenge

Ongoing Adaptations for the Hard-Hit Health Club Industry

Dr. Walt Thompson has authored each of the 15 annual fitness trends surveys from the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). In those years, Thompson has seen the most and least enduring programming, training methods, free-weight and machine usage, and types of exercise for health club members and non-club affiliated people: Pilates, group training, HIIT, wearable tech, kettlebells, to name just a few of each year's tracking of the most popular ways for people to get fit so that club operators can better serve them.


Most of the times have been good; though methods change, the desire for fitness has only grown. The financial crisis that began in 2008 may have affected money spent on exercise but not the hunger to exercise. Thompson had seen it all, until early 2020.

"We've never seen anything like this," said Thompson.

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected all types of business, but few more harshly than hospitals, restaurants and exercise facilities. This year's ACSM trends report, a compilation of answers from 4,000 industry members, is only a little about pre-COVID-19 and a lot about the aftermath.

According to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), more than 40,000 health and fitness clubs in the United States served more than 73 million consumers (64 million of whom were members) in 2019. The industry employed 3 million part-time and full-time employees. More than 80% of health clubs were small businesses (five clubs or less), owned by independent operators or franchisees.

IHRSA has gathered the stark data from the impact of COVID-19 on the health and fitness industry:

  • 480,000 jobs lost as of Oct. 1, 2020.
  • Based on permanent club closures and clubs still operating having to cut back on payroll due to operating restrictions, projected job losses by the end of 2020 was 1,640,000.
  • $15.6 billion in lost revenue through Oct. 1, 2020.
  • 15% of fitness clubs and studios had closed permanently as of Sept. 30, 2020.
  • Multiple national and regional fitness chains have filed for bankruptcy with closures of many facilities.
  • In states and regions where clubs are allowed to operate, capacity is reduced 25 to 50%—as low as 10% in some places—with strict spacing requirements of at least six feet, though clubs still have 100% of expenses.

"In the first wave of closures, health and fitness clubs were among the first businesses to close, and among the last to open," said IHRSA spokesperson Sami Smith. "While other small businesses could pivot and sell online or do takeout orders, health clubs had no real opportunities to earn revenue.

"Now, many months later, some clubs are still not open or even closing their doors yet again due to government-mandated shutdowns. Clubs have successfully pivoted to make money with outdoor workouts and virtual classes. Still, with seasons changing and other factors—such as significantly reduced capacity limits—these are no way near enough to cover the difference."


Before restrictions on public gathering halted business as usual, 2019 trends sparked the beginning of 2020. Hanging on to their holds on the top trends list were wearable tech (No. 1 in 2018 and 2019), high-intensity interval training (in the top five since 2014), body weight training (in the top 10 since 2013) and fitness programs for older adults (in the top 10 since 2007).

"At the end of 2018 and into 2019, we had predicted with reasonable certainty that group exercise classes would become the predominant form of exercise in particularly commercial gyms," Thompson said. "That proved out the last couple months of 2019 and into early 2020."

Graham Melstrand, executive vice president of mission and innovation at the American Council on Exercise (ACE) said at the start of 2020, the fitness industry was booming with large clubs and fitness studios experiencing record participation.

"Simultaneously, companies that provide at-home exercise equipment with subscription services were enjoying similar rapid growth," he said. "For facilities, this growth was primarily occurring under a traditional service delivery model of in-person physical activity experiences in club and studio."

Melstrand said ACE had been anticipating a rise in interest in health coaching and the associated programs and interventions that are appealing to consumers who are often just outside the core fitness participant as an additional line of service that appeals to the individual looking to improve their health through changing their lifestyle behaviors.

"Offering health coaching has been particularly appealing to organizations and professionals who are seeking alignment with the medical and/or corporate wellness communities," he said.

The most obvious result of adjustments to the pandemic's effects on the industry was the move of online training from 26th in the ACSM trend survey of 2020 to the top spot for 2021.

Mark Zabel, president of the U.S. commercial division and global chief marketing officer for a fitness equipment company based in Cottage Grove, Wis., said one of the lingering effects of the virus will be the explosion of and future use of virtual training classes and mobile applications.

"The consumer segment has experienced significant growth in all categories, including fitness equipment, digital products and virtual training classes," said Zabel. "With commercial facilities being closed, consumers opted for various ways to train in their home.

"I believe the biggest change for the commercial segment will be the acceleration of the need of a 'hybrid' model, and development of technology and digital products that will be produced for health club members. Adoption with these types of products in the commercial segment was relatively low in early 2020 prior to COVID, but now the rate of adoption for health club consumers has grown significantly."

Thompson is optimistic about the industry's bounceback, and agrees it will have to include hybrid programming, featuring online and virtual technology and club attendance.


"Second quarter of 2021, certainly the third quarter, we're going to see people flocking back to clubs, and clubs have to be really smart about how they receive returning members and new members and the kind of programs they offer them," Thompson said.

Thompson makes his prediction based on two factors: People will want to return to the social aspect of health clubs, and clubs will look to recoup losses with aggressive customer service and innovation.

"People have been cooped up now for eight, nine months," he said. "By the time the majority of us will see a vaccine, it will be a year. It's kind of like a tsunami about to happen; all those people sequestered will flock back to the gyms. A lot of us will need that social support that's necessary for exercise programming success. There's no better place to socialize than the gym. Many of us need the extrinsic motivation to exercise successfully, and we're going to need that even more so when we feel comfortable going back to the gyms."

Thompson said the clubs that people return to will have to capitalize on the different kinds of programming developed during the pandemic.

"All these virtual experiences are not going to go away," said Thompson. "Some consumers will want to continue these virtual kinds of workouts, but they can't look like they look today. Today we're offering these virtual experiences like 'Here's an interim COVID class for you,' but some of them are quite good. The smart clubs are going to capitalize on that and continue to offer them—not exclusively, but kind of like a hybrid model: workouts you can do at home, but we also want you to come to the gym."

Though the rise of at-home virtual exercise tools and programming could keep people from returning to clubs in the numbers seen pre-pandemic, Thompson will keep his faith in the social draw of facilities.

"If I was to invest in either a commercial club or a home exercise device or program my money would go to the club," he said. "One, people have been isolated for so long and also there aren't a whole lot of people who are intrinsically motivated, or they exercise because they want to.

"Typically people are extrinsically motivated. They do it to satisfy that family member or friend or people they go to the gym with. I would invest in a commercial club. I'm really optimistic about this. A lot of people are saying the industry will never survive. I would never go there."

IHRSA agrees with Thompson. Smith said although it anticipates virtual fitness and wellness offerings to continue for the foreseeable future, IHRSA also believes that consumers are eager to engage in programs at their health and fitness facilities—small group classes, personal training, etc.

Smith cited data from the group's "The COVID Era Fitness Consumer" report: 95% of club users reported that they missed at least one physical aspect of their gym. Specifically, consumers missed working out with other people (42%), the sense of community (36%) and having people at the gym cheer them on (26%).

Mehlstrand of ACE said outdoor programming may become a post-pandemic favorite of clubs, and added that health coaching could rise as well. Distinct from personal training, health coaching programs focus on improving healthy lifestyle behaviors and lend themselves to distance delivery via technology and are appealing to a broad range of consumers. They can be integrated alongside the core fitness programs and services, Mehlstrand said.


"COVID-19 has really highlighted the importance of a healthy lifestyle for many people who perhaps did not prioritize this before the pandemic," he said. "This demand from a new group of individuals can increase the potential for the health clubs and fitness facilities and studios to grow to serve as the center for a broader range of community-facing health and physical activity programs that can be delivered virtually or in-person once safe to do so."

Though new programming will be a key feature of 2021 facility openings and re-openings, a focus on safety and sanitization will be mandatory. Regardless of the public's desire to reconnect with the club experience and the industry's need for that reconnection, people will require what used to be an afterthought to all but germaphobes: cleanliness.

Widespread vaccinations may make masks optional when gathering restrictions are eased, but the wiping down of equipment and the circulation and purification of air will be top of mind for operators and their customers, said Bruce Sherman, owner of a company that makes holders of cleaning products for fitness facilities.

"We've always existed in a respiratory cloud in our gyms," Sherman said. "People are breathing, people are coughing, people are sneezing, their breathing's accelerated, and those respiratory particles are floating in the air and they're landing on equipment.

"You can have the nicest equipment in the world, but if you're not sanitizing the surfaces and sanitizing the air in this COVID era—which we're a long way from being through—the gym is a very risky, unhealthy place."

Sherman said his main focus is surface sanitization because even though masks can help prevent the spread of airborne particles, "gravity eventually pulls them down and they have to land somewhere."

"Constant attention to keeping surfaces clean is so important because people touch surfaces and then the question is, do they touch their eyes, mouth or nose which are the primary entry points for the virus into the body? One thing I've always preached, germs, bacteria, viruses are easy to kill on hard surfaces, it's once they get into the body where you have a problem.

"We get fit by touching surfaces. Elliptical surfaces, dumbbells, barbells, TRX straps, kettlebells. We can't get fit unless we touch surfaces, many surfaces. We go about and touch everything to get fit. It's a very unique setting. But I say, 'Spread fitness not germs.'"

Sherman suggests to post-pandemic facilities that they develop policies for equipment sanitizing before and after use, keeping in mind that "equipment sanitizing is a team sport."

"It has to be," he said. "It's best executed when it's done by both staff and members. Members are the initial point person because they're the ones that use it. You use it, you clean it."

Sherman said if the initial cleaning isn't done or done well, observant staff has to come in and finish the job. He said clubs should help ensure cleaning success by placing cleaning supplies near equipment along with signage. He recommends operators use reusable towels rather than paper towels to cut down on cost.

"If it's convenient they will do it," he said. "Especially if there are posted rules. Wear your mask, keep your distance, clean equipment before and after use."

The IHRSA website provides many resources for operators, including sanitization policies and procedures. One article on the site, "What Safety Procedures are Health Clubs Using To Reopen?" from May 2020, cites one club's plans:

"Based on the advice of the experts, ventilation and air conditioning systems can be turned on or off. Technically speaking, this is possible to implement. If the authorities deem it necessary, time blocks can also be used, for example, after every block of 1.5 hours of workouts, the club can be emptied and ventilated before the next group of people comes in. Clubs provide ample opportunity to wash hands with soap or alcohol gel, and can equip employees with gloves and other protective equipment in accordance with applicable recommendations."


Another facility established "Health Guard" teams to rotate and manage zones of the club for cleanliness and spacing. It also lays out plans for additional hospital-grade wipe dispensers and alcohol-based hand sanitizing stations, as well as a fogging regimen using an EPA-registered and USDA-accepted product designed to provide long-lasting antimicrobial protection.

The United States Tennis Association has a document named "COVID-19 Playing Tennis Safely Community Tennis Guidelines," which says in part, "All court gates and stair rails should be wrapped with caution tape to discourage touching, or else should be wiped down every hour. Consider spraying tennis balls briefly with a disinfectant spray (e.g., Lysol or Clorox) at the conclusion of play. Using new balls on a very regular basis is highly encouraged."

Sherman said if ever the term "perception is reality" applied to a situation, it does with cleanliness and clubs.

"You have to convince your potential members and current members that they can come in and feel confident and feel safe," he said. "Sure, they're gonna look at your equipment, but they also want to know that when they come in they'll be safe. 'Will I be safe or will I be sick because I'm touching all these surfaces?'

"You really have to pass those tests, the eye tests, and you have to really get a sense your members' perception is their reality. You have to meet their reality by what they're perceiving about what you're doing and what you're doing to keep them safe."

Thompson looks to the third quarter of 2021 as the latest for the industry to roar back, but that may change due to a slower-than-expected vaccine program. Justin Tillinghast, a sales manager for a fitness products company, said while there are still many questions for what will trend in 2021, he's sure of the industry's mettle.

"If only we had a crystal ball," he said. "Technology will definitely play a huge role in our growth in the near future, but most likely in ways that we have yet to anticipate. I am sure there will be more attrition and fallout, with more mergers and acquisitions taking place, but overall I think the industry will come out of this much wiser and better off. It will definitely not get easier, but we have definitely expanded our capacity for change." RM