January is normally a boom time for gyms, as many of us strive to get healthy for a new year’s resolution.
But continuing coronavirus restrictions mean that gyms in many areas are closed. While others can still open, they may not offer any group classes.
At the same time, an explosion in fitness tech means that some people are experiencing incredible transformations from their own home, or their local park, or on the streets near their house. What does this mean for the future of the gym sector?
Ben Barbanel lost three stone (19kg) during England’s first lockdown last year, when exercise was one of the few reasons to leave the house.
The former gym-goer would obsessively track his steps using a Garmin watch, racking up as many as 45,000 a day – not far off a marathon.
Ben, who works in finance in London, had put on weight after recovering from major surgery for a bowel condition. But the shift to homeworking meant he could take meetings while out for a walk.
“It fitted in with my lifestyle – I hated the gym and being bullied by a personal trainer,” he says. “I thought some clients might have a problem if I was on Zoom, and they saw me not behind a desk, but they all thought it was amazing [that I was out exercising], and that spurred me on.”
He’s one of many who say they will never set foot in a conventional gym again.
Instead, they are hooked on the technology that kept them fit in lockdown, whether that’s “wearable tech” like fitness trackers and smartwatches, or livestreamed exercise classes.
Vicky Malmsjo from Essex downloaded an app called Her Spirit, which offers a supportive community to help women get active.
Despite “hating technology”, the swimming coach, who at one point was in the gym seven days a week, finds the app simple to use. She combines it with a fitness tracker so she can monitor her improvements.
“I’m quite a competitive person, so even though I was being only competitive with myself each week, I tried to increase what I was doing. I ended up walking 10 to 15km (six to nine miles) a day,” says Vicky.
“I started to post on the app every day, and other people encouraged me. If it hadn’t been for those ladies at Her Spirit I don’t think I would have done it. Through the whole of lockdown they offered different challenges and things to keep your mind busy.”
Both Ben and Vicky have been using relatively inexpensive technology to keep themselves motivated.
But for others, the time and money saved last year – from not going to gyms, not commuting, cancelled holidays, and shut bars and restaurants – has prompted a splurge on expensive internet-connected fitness equipment that enables them to livestream exercise classes and compete with others around the world.
One of the most well-known of these digital platforms is Peloton, which makes interactive exercise bikes. Its annual revenues hit $1.8B (£1.3B) in 12 months to the end of June 2020, double that of the year before. User numbers rose by the same amount to 3.1 million.
Sarah Muse bought herself a Peloton bike after graduating and moving back in with her parents near Washington DC.
“I’m competing against my family members, staying active, and just riding out this pandemic until I can move out of my parents’ house,” she says.
“Though initially expensive, after I graduated during this pandemic mess, I saved up for a post-graduation trip that never happened. Maybe now my Peloton will get me fit for a future trip I can take!
“My mindset has definitely improved from increased exercise, and I’m happy to see it is positively changing my extended family’s lives.
“I am truly not interested in a gym membership, but hopefully, I can join a yoga studio when the world returns to somewhat normal, and it is safer in the US.”