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Will We Ever Feel Comfortable Going to the Gym Again?

Madeleine Johnson

If you’re anything like me, the motivation to be active while in quarantine comes in waves. Some days I’ve been all about going on walks and runs and fitting online workouts into my schedule; other days I’ve been glued to my couch, moving only to hit the “Next Episode” button on my remote.

Before stay-at-home orders were enacted, many of us worked going to the gym or a fitness studio into our daily routines. Now, working out at home has become so popular that it’s nearly impossible to find weights or yoga mats online (I know because I’m still trying to find a good set of 10-pound dumbbells).

As more states begin to lift lockdown restrictions, nonessential businesses like gyms are preparing to reopen, and the gym experience we’ll now have likely won’t be the one we knew.

But will we ever feel comfortable going to the gym again?

Let’s take a look at four different fitness experiences, and how they’re tackling the “new normal.”

Online Fitness: Peloton (PTON)

Peloton, the uber-luxe at-home fitness company, exploded in popularity right as sweeping stay-at-home orders were put in place.

Before the pandemic, Peloton was best known for last year’s bizarre, yet horrifying, holiday commercial featuring a woman who was given the Peloton bike as a gift for Christmas by her husband, insinuating that she, who was already in great shape, needed to get fitter. The reaction was so bad and so swift that shares fell as much as 10% soon after its release.

That little hiccup, though, has all but been forgotten: the Peloton bike is now the go-to fitness purchase during the pandemic, and the stock has soared roughly 243% since March 12.

This, of course, has made it very difficult to get your hands on a bike. Just today, I looked to see how long it would take to get one shipped to my Chicago address, and it’s still a six-to-eight-week time frame.

But Peloton offers more than just their signature bike.

The company sells a treadmill, fitness equipment like workout mats and weights, and workout apparel. It also has an app where, for only $12.99 a month, you can tune in to guided strength, HIIT, and yoga classes, among other choices.

Like Zoom Video (ZM), Peloton has become an essential “stay-at-home” company. People being forced to work out from home ended up being a good thing for the company, and it’s now a household name; the Peloton brand is near synonymous with at-home stationary bikes.

While most states have now reopened following the widespread shutdowns earlier in the year, some have been forced to rollback certain plans due to a possible rise in infections. In general, people are far more cautious going to places like public gyms; only 20% of Americans said they were comfortable going to a gym, according to a July 13 poll by Morning Consult.

Peloton only stands to benefit, especially if this change in consumers’ exercise habits and preferences is long-term.

Boutique Fitness

Different from the traditional gym experience, boutique fitness studios are primarily smaller spaces that focus on group classes and community building.

From SoulCycle to Barry’s Bootcamp to CorePower Yoga, each brand focuses on a specific type of workout: spinning, strength & HIIT training, and yoga, for example.

Many of these companies were forced to close their doors when we all had to shelter in place, and some got creative, releasing online fitness classes with popular instructors, or even launching branded equipment. But as states begin to re-open their economies, these kinds of fitness companies are preparing a new class experience.

Let’s look at SoulCycle.

I recently received an email from the company that their Chicago studios are getting ready to reopen, but the typical SoulCycle experience will look much different than what riders have grown accustomed to.

There will now be less classes to account for disinfecting all of the bikes, the weights, and the high-touch surfaces. Staff members are required to wear masks and gloves during their work shift. Riders will get their temperature checked as they enter the studio, and you must wear a mask, even in class.

But the number of riders allowed in a class will likely be the biggest change. At the Chicago Loop studio, there are over 60 bikes, and with certain instructors, the class is completely full, with every bike booked. Now, after the city reinstated a restriction for indoor fitness, there will only be 10 people allowed in a class. 

I booked a class for this week, and I’m very curious to see if I like the new SoulCycle experience, if I can handle a spin class with a mask on, and if I feel comfortable and safe enough in that space to go back.

Because that will be the determining factor for boutique fitness going forward—creating an environment that feels enough like how it was before, while at the same time showing the customer that their health and safety is a top priority.

Gyms: Planet Fitness (PLNT)

Planet Fitness is a low-cost gym operator that has chains all across the U.S. Members can pay as low as $10 a month for unlimited access to their home gym, but the company is almost better known for the free pizza they give away on the first Monday of every month.

PLNT had been one of the hottest growth stories on Wall Street too, gaining about 450% from its August 2015 IPO to February 20 of this year; revenue almost doubled during that time frame, too.

But like many other companies, business ground to a halt during the Covid-19 crisis, and it had to temporarily shutter all of its locations. Even though it’s been able to reopen 1,200 of its gyms, a surge in new U.S. coronavirus cases has continued to restrict its operations.

So what lies in store for the gym chain?

Well, Planet Fitness has laid out an extensive cleanliness plan as more people return to its gyms. Dubbed the Clean Thumb Club, members and guests will now be required to wear a mask at all times, with cleaning stations set up all around the gym. Additionally, some cardio and strength machines won’t be available in order to promote “Social Fitnessing.”

The company also offers free trainer-led workouts for members on platforms like Facebook (FB) and Alphabet’s (GOOGL) YouTube to cater to those consumers who aren’t yet ready to return to a gym.

One thing that will help set Planet Fitness apart from competitors is its unique marketing strategy.

The company has spent an enormous amount of money on marketing campaigns—an estimated $870 million since 2011—and this kind of spending power will only strengthen the Planet Fitness brand amid the current pandemic.

With its long-term growth plan still intact and the increasing popularity of its Black Card membership, the biggest obstacle moving forward for Planet Fitness, and for everyone else, is uncertainty: no one really knows what the rest of the year will look like.

But by maintaining its brand and core business values, Planet Fitness can still be the go-to gym for all kinds of consumers post-pandemic.

Fitness Programs: Weight Watchers (WW)

Thanks to a big boost from shareholder Oprah Winfrey, Weight Watchers, now known as WW, got a much-needed overhaul a few years back.

And before the coronavirus became a full-blown health crisis earlier this year, WW reported a great first quarter. Revenue grew by 10% to $400 million, and subscribers jumped 9% to 5 million, an all-time high.

But, roughly 1.4 million of WW’s subscribers require some form of in-person coaching at a company workshop, and with many studio locations still closed and social distancing measures put in place, it’s hard to imagine pre-pandemic revenue levels returning any time soon.

On the bright side, WW has been pushing its digital products for a while now, and the coronavirus has only accelerated that shift in business. Its all-digital offering only costs $21 per month, and allows users to easily track points, connect with others, and keep tabs on their workouts.

A recent $100 million cost-savings initiative will also help WW expand profits as business begins to recover.

Despite any setbacks the company is facing right now, WW is still a well-known leader in the health and wellness industry, and is a brand that consumers know and trust.

For those looking to lose weight and maintain a healthy lifestyle, WW will likely always be a consumer-favorite option, whether we’re in a pandemic or not; it’s a company that people have continually turned to to look and feel better.

If WW continues to focus on its digital products and show consumers that they are still the same brand without in-person or studio offerings, then 2020 could be just a bump in the road in its growth story.

Bottom Line

So will we ever feel comfortable going to the gym again?

For me, the answer is yes…right now. I’m willing to take a chance to see what a favorite workout of mine looks like and feels like with new procedures in place.

For others, the answer might be “no, let’s wait and see what it’s like in a few more months.”

Or it could be “yes, 100% yes, I need to get back to the gym just to get out of the house.”

Whatever your answer is, going to the gym is yet one more thing the coronavirus pandemic has completely changed.

Because readers, we’re living in a mask, mask, mask world. Let’s just hope our cardio levels are where they need to be.

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