Could healthier habits be Covid’s strangest side effect?
Located in the heart of normally sleepy downtown Soquel, Play it Again Sports is straight-up-bonkers on a cool and foggy Saturday morning. A steady stream of customers—perusing the shop’s small selection of used and new disc golf discs, testing out the few remaining fitness machines in stock, and searching high and low for the now-fabled free weights—keeps assistant manager Josue Diaz on his toes and in a flurry of perpetual motion.
“Business has been non-stop this past year. We’ve been trying to meet the community’s needs, but we are slammed,” admits Diaz. “When the gyms shut down suddenly, everything went crazy. From the start of the pandemic, demand has remained constant. People come in to buy gear and fitness equipment to set up their home gyms. We’re a year in, and business has never been better.”
The coronavirus forced millions of fitness fans to be immensely adaptive. Left gym-less, class-less, and trainer-less pretty much overnight, many Americans had to upend their fitness regimes completely—totally changing when, where, and how they work out. Socially distanced, quarantined, and quite leery of venturing into a diseased and treacherous world, Americans got creative—hitting the great outdoors or bringing fitness activities into their homes.
“It scared people. Folks needed to be incredibly cautious and scrambled to find options that worked for them in their homes,” says In-Shape Fitness GM Zach Rankin. “Even when we opened, not everyone felt comfortable coming back in.”
Covid wasn’t kind to the gym industry—at all. According to the group International Health, Racquet, and Sports Club Association, the pandemic led 15% of all gyms to shut down permanently. It’s estimated that over 50% of members either froze or canceled their memberships, and the industry hemorrhaged, losing billions of dollars and eliminating over 500,000 jobs. Several workout behemoths, including Gold’s Gym and 24 Hour Fitness, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
With gyms shuttered, and with more American homebodies than at any time in modern history, you might believe that physical fitness was being neglected during the pandemic. Not so! According to UnitedHealthcare’s 2020 Wellness Checkup Survey, it actually spurred more than 35% of Americans to ramp up their physical activity. Adopting healthier habits might just be Covid’s strangest, and most unexpected side effect.
While members continue to return to the fully reopened In-Shape, Rankin admits that “many people are hesitant at first. It’s a gym with a lot of people and moving parts.”
To assuage the fears and calm the nerves of potential and former members, In-Shape has made cleanliness a top priority. All gym surfaces are cleaned every hour, and sanitary wipes are provided instead of spray bottles throughout the complex.
“At this point, everything is open now,” says Rankin. “The same amenities are available from the pre-Covid days. “We have the relaxation, comfort, and recovery area open as well as our fitness and swimming offerings.”
Outdoor exercise offerings are available to club members. Half of the gym’s parking garage is devoted to outdoor activities—full of plate-loaded machines, free weights and a bevy of cardio options.
Everything at the Capitola gym is based on an app-based reservation system. In-Shape is offering regular classes, but at a limited capacity. Its popular yoga classes, usually attended by 50-60 members, are limited to 30 lucky yogis. Attendees must make reservations at least two days in advance and adhere to strict 10-foot separation and spacing. No more just showing up and hoping for the best.
A sign of the times, all of In-Shape’s classes are also available for online streaming through the club’s proprietary web-based application. Members can select various pre-recorded classes and personal training routines via laptop or desktop computer, television or tablet.
“The goal is for people to feel comfortable getting their necessary exercise—just not in the gym’s physical location. Our digital fitness platform gives people flexibility and a way to fit fitness into their busy schedules,” says Rankin.
Kickstarted by Covid’s “dirty globetrotting dance,” and fueled by stay-at-home regulations, physical, digital and virtual fitness exploded onto the scene. 2020 was the year gyms like In-Shape fully embraced the digital revolution. Madly scrambling to deal with a precipitous decline in memberships, close to 70% of gyms currently livestream and offer on-demand workouts. Only 25% did so in 2019, according to fitness research firm Clubintel.
Quarantine and mandated social distancing reminded Americans that they could exercise almost anywhere. Experts believe that a hybrid model—a combination of digital and in-person services—is the way of the future.
Virtual exercise has become the cornerstone of millions of Americans’ exercise routines. A whopping 80% of fitness consumers have livestreamed a workout since the onset of the pandemic, compared with just 7% in 2019. Gyms and firms in the fitness industry are constantly reimagining the average workout and dreaming up new and ingenious ways for members/customers to sweat and stay in shape from home.
SWEAT FROM HOME
The pandemic has created a legion of gym DIYers. Spending on gym basics like treadmills, ellipticals and stationary bikes shot through the roof. And free weights? Good luck.
“This area is different than most,” admits Rankin. “Most people living here have a considerable amount of money. They have been able to afford to buy equipment and establish substantial home gyms. A lot of vendors capitalized on the moment and raised their prices.”
The second quarter of 2020 was the strongest ever for Icon Health and Fitness, the umbrella health and fitness corporation that includes NordicTrack in its portfolio. Net sales rose 94% to $114 million year over year. Sales of Bowflex—yup, the same dope setup you saw in commercials as a kid—went ballistic, as well.
“For some products, we’ve had to wait months to get restocked. Exercise machines have been hard to keep in the store. Every vendor and supplier has been out of them. Prices have increased with the demand and limited supply. Many items have been hard to get, for sure,” says Play It Again’s Diaz.
Meanwhile, dumbbells—just like toilet paper, bidets, hand sanitizer and Nintendo Switches—were one of those curious things that became exceedingly hard to find during the pandemic. Experts say that America’s yearlong dumbbell shortage is what happens when colossal demand careens into a broken supply chain.
“From the start, the most popular things, by far, were the dumbbells. People rushed in to buy 10s, 15s, 20s and 25s. The weights became highly coveted. We had to close a whole section of the store off. Customers rushed in when we got a shipment. It was busy and chaotic. It’s what kept us alive in the beginning. Now we have to wait months to get restocked,” says Diaz.
A large number of fitness junkies gritted down and took the plunge, investing in a set of NordicTrack or Bowflex adjustable dumbbells, considered holy grails of gym toys. But these favorites will set you back a cool $4,000 or more.
The appeal? They take up much less space than standard weights, and thanks to nicely designed fasteners and switches, they can be as heavy as 55 pounds or as light as 10.
Historically, the market for dumbbells is cyclical; sales ramp up in the fall, peak with New Year’s “I’m gonna do it this time!” resolutions, and then taper off when the temperatures start to rise. Stores like Play it Again Sports weren’t equipped to handle the tidal wave of demand.
“I remember when dumbbells were $1.09 a pound,” says Diaz. “Now they are at least $1.75 a pound—when we have them in stock.”
It turns out 95% of all dumbbells are manufactured in China, and Covid lockdowns there pretty much decimated the free weight supply chain overnight. Joining Play It Again Sports on the weight waitlist are Dick’s Sporting Goods, Big 5 and Modell’s. Good luck finding them on Amazon. And if you come across some on eBay, be prepared for some serious price gouging. A run-of-the-mill 15-pound pair of dumbbells will set you back $169.
FUTURE OF FITNESS
If the pandemic did one thing, it shined a light on just how important it is for all of us to prioritize—and invest in—our wellness, fitness and health. Digital and at-home fitness have received a most likely permanent boost, and gyms are eyeing headlines about the Delta variant warily. Will the run on weights, exercise equipment, bikes, and shoes persist? When will supply chains normalize? Only time will tell.
But one thing is for certain: things are still changing—fast. Since I began researching this article, California has done away with capacity limits and reopening tiers, only to start urging indoor mask use again when Covid cases started to rise due to the Delta variant. Just last week, Bay Area health officials in seven counties reinstated an indoor mask mandate.
A year and a half of quarantine and isolation have left many previous gym-goers craving human interaction and social engagement. Some will undoubtedly stick with home workout routines. At-home exercise will likely become complementary rather than a direct competitor to health clubs.
“Covid has been terrible for all of us, but in a positive light, we’ve been able to try things that we’d never done before. We’re starting to see members come back to us,” says Rankin. “We love to hear their stories about what they’ve done to stay fit and active during this past year and a half.”
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