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Of all the industries that suffered a blow because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the
fitness sector was among the hardest hit. According to the National Health & Fitness Alliance, 22% of U.S. health clubs and studios have closed since the pandemic began,
and the industry has lost more than $29.2 billion. At the same time, exercise emerged
as a crucial tool for keeping ourselves healthy—mentally and physically—in the midst
of a global health crisis.
Here’s how the fitness industry has changed since COVID-19 hit.
How Gyms Adapted to COVID-19
Starting in the spring of 2020, gyms were forced to close for an average of two to five months. (California shuttered them for more than nine.) In Minnesota, Gov. Tim Walz ordered gyms closed for two separate stretches that year—from March 17 to June 10 and again for a month from Nov. 19 to Dec. 19.
“All of a sudden we were mandated to close down literally every one of our clubs, so we had to think fast,” says Steve Larson, senior vice president of club operations for Minnesota-based Life Time. The company used the time to invest in its clubs’ infrastructure, making improvements to plumbing, heating, and lighting elements.
They also consulted with experts and public health officials to develop a 400-page playbook of safety measures to prevent transmission of the virus. “We did everything we could to make members feel safe and comfortable, and that helped us recover,” Larson says. As capacity restrictions fluctuated, clubs across the state adapted by spacing out equipment, adding outdoor classes, loaning members workout equipment for home use, and requiring advance registration for in-person workouts.
Large chains were able to weather the closures and capacity restrictions better than many independent clubs or mom-and-pop studios. Those that ultimately didn’t make it yielded members and instructors that the larger clubs were all too happy to snap up.
Minnesota’s Hot Fitness Trends
From the new Lucky Shots Pickleball Club in Northeast Minneapolis to Life Time’s new Pickleball Center in Bloomington, options abound for partaking in what The Economist has dubbed the “fastest growing sport in America.”
Even after Alchemy 365 resumed in-person classes, member Andrea Leet loved having the option of augmenting her studio workouts with digital classes from the gym’s on-demand library. “The online platform is very easy to use and extremely accessible on the go,” Leet says. Industry experts predict many fitness enthusiasts will continue to combine the benefits of both in-person and online classes.
Life Time’s Steve Larson forecasts growth in demand for functional training—exercises that use multiple muscle groups with an emphasis on core strength and stability. “We still offer static cardio options like treadmills and bikes, but a lot of people are moving toward functional, personal, and small-group training. We’re building more dedicated spaces for folks who want that kind of coaching.”
The Rise of Virtual Fitness Classes
There are plenty of folks who don’t see themselves returning to the gym anytime soon. “At the start of the pandemic, I was a person who thought I needed the gym for exercise,” says Minneapolis-based theater artist James Rodríguez. When clubs shut down, he converted his guest bedroom to a home gym and signed up for a fitness-class subscription service called Alo Moves.
“I like that the app has tons of different on-demand classes, so it’s hard to get bored with my workout. I’m definitely a convert. I’m not saying that I’ll never go back to a gym. But for now, I’m very content with my situation,” Rodríguez says.
Life Time already had a digital presence before the pandemic, but the mandated closures forced the business to accelerate and broaden its “omnichannel experience,” allowing members to engage with trainers and instructors from home. It found that members preferred livestreamed classes over on-demand options. “People missed the energy of the club, and even from home they wanted to feel like they were part of a live experience,” Larson says.
Life Time now offers hundreds of online classes across four time zones. “People might find an instructor they love from another state. Now they can attend classes with their favorite instructor no matter where they are,” Larson says.
Alchemy 365, a fitness-club chain with locations in Minnesota and Colorado, also leaned into online offerings. Member Michele Hossle used the chain’s app to stay active as the pandemic rolled on. “The online classes were live, which gave me a reason to show up and not put it off. And they had us comment on the livestream so the instructors could encourage us by name even though we weren’t in the same room,” she says.
Fitness Influencers Are the New Trainers
Fitness influencer Kristin Rowell (@mngoldengirl) became a functional nutritional therapy practitioner to help people feel good in their bodies and show up well in their lives. She uses her reach on social media, including more than 6,000 followers on Instagram, to do just that. “The benefit of having a social media presence is that people get to know, like, and trust you, and you have that many more humans you can reach,” Rowell says.
She uses her platform to highlight client stories, share before-and-after images, and “educate, inspire, and motivate.” It’s also a way for her to reach new potential clients. “What engages people to want to reach out is seeing the success of another client and thinking, ‘If she can do that, then I can do that.’ I build an inherent trust with my followers by connecting with them and showing them what’s possible.”
Top Minnesota Fitness Influencers
Jill Christine (@JillChristineFit)
Insta followers: 402k
Best for: Education and empowerment
Greg Jennings (@theofficialgj)
Insta followers: 47.5k
Best for: Mindset, faith, and positivity
Sam (@mrs.sweendogg) & Noel Sweeney (@mr.sweendogg)
Insta followers: 754k and 21.8k, respectively
Best for: Workout ideas, inspiration, and fitness goals