Post-Pandemic Fitness Experimentation

Fitness routines and the new normal

This past third quarter marks the most normal consumers have felt since pre-pandemic regarding work, social life, eating, and exercising. But what’s normal now is not the same as 2019. Many, if not most, Americans experienced major life changes over the past 2 ½ years. They can’t just slip right back into the fitness routines of the past. Accordingly, fitness engagement has fluctuated dramatically even in the past year or so, as consumers try out new options and routines to find what suits the lives they lead now.

One major trend we’ve been watching over the course of the year is the return to in-person fitness, as consumers are finally able to get back to gyms and studios without masks or social distancing. Sure enough, gym memberships rose across all age groups early this year, only to peak in spring (March, to be precise) and fall steadily since then. Other types of structured fitness activity, like online fitness usage and organized sports, also have fallen off. Yet Americans are actually exercising quite consistently, especially at home and outdoors, as well as trying more types of activities. Amid a busy summer travel and fall back-to-school season, Americans seem to be opting for more convenient forms of exercise.

So what happened to gyms?

The return to gyms and studios actually began last summer, in 2021. However, social distancing and masking restrictions made exercise more difficult and the social environment less stimulating, diminishing the gym experience many were hoping to regain. Combined with the resurgent Delta and Omicron variants, consumers didn’t come back in earnest until 2022.

As excited as many gym members were to return, many had also developed other routines that they could fall back on, including home gyms, virtual workouts and fitness apps, and use of other types of facilities, like community fitness centers and sports facilities, all of which gym members increased their usage of over the past year and a half. With the return of gyms and studios, fitness consumers now have more options than ever before, leading many to question whether they need to pay for a gym or studio to meet their needs.

Gym vs Home

Many gym members told us that while the gym was the center of their fitness lives pre-Covid, this isn’t the case anymore. Over the course of the pandemic, gyms have seen a lower share of workouts that has persisted even through this past year. Where have these workouts gone?

Many of them shifted into the home. In fact, the home is really the key competitor to the gym. A higher number of consumers work out at home weekly or more now compared to pre-pandemic, a trend that holds true for both women and men. The ability to get a good workout at home has truly changed many fitness consumers’ routines, including those who love and prefer the gym. We heard from many of these consumers, including self-proclaimed “gym rats,” who still had shifted a proportion of their workouts to the home because it is simply so convenient. The pandemic prompted them to create dedicated home workout spaces, invest in equipment, and discover workouts they could do at home. Now that those options exist, it is easy to factor them into the weekly routine.

This shift toward home workouts is a major contributor to women’s lower rates of gym return in particular. Women have long been more likely to work out at home than men. The convenience of home workouts seems to work especially well for them, helping to break down barriers around time, energy, and cost, which tend to be more salient for women than men. The shift toward home thus contributes to the changing demographics of gym members, which continue to skew male and young compared to pre-pandemic. We’ve discussed this trend elsewhere and how it contributes to changes in what consumers are looking for when selecting a gym, including in collaboration with IHRSA.

Riding out 2022

As we head into the most “normal” holiday season since 2019, we expect consumers to be busy. Q4 is typically a relative low point for fitness and nutrition engagement, and this year may be lower than usual as Americans enjoy an active season. Club operators should invest in maintaining their current membership, many of whom are likely gym stalwarts at this point. However, fitness consumers are still actively experimenting, so they’re open to promotions, new ideas, and new routines. And January could bring a much-needed boost to member rolls after an indulgent season, and a very happy New Year.

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