It hasn’t been just one heck of a year—but two hecks of years. After 20 months, we’re checking in on our local fitness centers, how far they’ve come, and what the next year might hold.
With the dawn of each new chapter of the pandemic (and there have been many!), we chronicled the ebb and flow of local gyms and fitness studios. We discovered at-home options amid the chaos of the first flip to solely virtual; some of us returned to the gym last summer, when it was allowed again, while some of us continued our WOFH (workout from home) routine. Just a year ago, we spent our last moments in sweat studios, as they endured a second closure from November 21 to early January 2021, when they were again allowed to gradually reopen with stringent measures—making classes tiny and participants masked at all times. Gyms limboed under 25 percent class caps, adjusting every few weeks to new distancing requirements, then slid up to 50 percent in March, and finally no limits and no masks in late May. And that was just seven months ago.
Like getting Ross Geller’s sofa up a flight of stairs, the last 20 months have involved a lot of pivoting.
“We’ve had to reinvent Studio ME Fitness,” says owner Megan Cooper. “We really had to look at our services and what we offer and make the tough decisions, from the programs we offered to our actual physical location.”
Her small studios could only have two to five people in each room under capacity restrictions, so Cooper moved operations to the ground floor of Nordhaus, an apartment building in Northeast. The new Studio ME opened in July 2021.
“While hard and having a significant impact on the community we’ve worked so hard to build, it was the best thing we have ever done,” Cooper says.
Having never laid off staff during the pandemic, ME is now facing the same roadblock as many restaurants and other industries: not enough hands on deck—err, mats. “We’ve actually started an internship to train newly certified trainers in hopes to find the right fit for our community,” Cooper says.
“Thankfully, since extinguishing the remaining mandates in June of 2021, we’ve been on a steady yet moderate climb to rebuilding our business,” says Greta Ertl of Minneapolis studio The FIRM.
After the tidal waves of the pandemic crashed in relentlessly, it seems like it’s finally time to strap on our tool belts and start building back—but with a different blueprint. New data collected by ClassPass shows that over 70 percent of professionals are going to fitness studios on the days they are working remotely. And the report found that people are twice as likely to sample a new fitness class or studio on the days they work from home.
This rings true for local sweat spaces, which have seen a shift in popular times. “Many people are still working from home,” Cooper says, “so they no longer need to come in at 5:45 a.m.” (Say it with us: Amen!)
New data collected by ClassPass shows that over 70 percent of professionals are going to fitness studios on the days they are working remotely.
Studio ME has also seen a downshift from mega-classes to smaller and more personalized training. Cooper’s members “want a more intimate experience where they know everyone and know they will be taken care of,” she says. “They have not done anything over the past two years, so jumping back into a high intensity class is frightening.” To feed the need for tailored workouts, the Northeast fit center sidelined its emphasis on group classes to focus on private and semi-private training. (Think: buying a shirt off the rack versus getting a shirt made to your measurements.)
But, as virtual options abound, studios like The FIRM are noticing a move to hybrid. It created virtual platform, FIRM On Demand, with livestream classes and an extensive library of on-demand sweat seshes in 2020. That’s not to say that everyone wants to interrupt their day to get a sweat in. “Our clients still gravitate towards early morning and after-work classes,” Ertl says.
Even for bigger chains, like Chanhassen-based Life Time, the hybrid approach is the silver bullet. “The future of health and wellness is omnichannel,” says Dan DeBaun, senior public relations specialist. Many people are returning to IRL sweat sessions, he says—and traffic levels are even approaching that of the Before Times. “But we’re also finding that members like the convenience of being able to take a virtual livestream class from home,” he says, “when they’re short on time or busy on a certain day.”
In 2020, the silver big box gym launched a digital-only membership via an app with access to livestream classes from Life Time locations across the country. The app now receives more than 6 million visits each month and has an ever-expanding lineup of fitness content, plus other health-related initiatives like guided meditation and nutrition programs.
Despite the new digital twist, DeBaun is confident “there will be a continued resurgence to in-person exercise through next year.”
The Open-Close Whiplash
We know it well: close, open, close, open. We memorized the steps and can improvise to match the cadence of 25 percent, 50 percent, 100.
We knew from the start that bodies want to be in motion, and that we would one day return to in-person fitness. Like live music and sporting events, we itch to be part of the crowd, we yearn to bond over a shared experience—a shared love.
But Tyler Quinn, CEO of Alchemy 365, voiced a haunting question at the beginning of the second closure: “Who will be around when that happens?”
This year saw more than 20 percent of fitness studios and gyms close their doors. The reality of that stat is felt throughout the Twin Cities with the loss of Fly Feet and Rise Yoga, among others. But stranger still is the story of Alchemy’s Uptown studio, which bid adieu for a hot second last fall.
Alchemy 365’s location on Fremont Avenue, in the heart of Uptown, held its final classes on October 31, 2020. Then, on October 16, 2021—just shy of a year later—the studio opened its doors and welcomed in A-listers once again.
“Flat out, we’re still hurting and have a lot of recovering to do before we’re stable,” said Quinn in a press release. “But opening Uptown is truly essential for Alchemy’s survival.”
After an especially difficult year for embattled Uptown, Quinn says, “in its own little way, the reopening of our studio will help Uptown continue to heal and become a vibrant and thriving place for small businesses once again.”
The Next Gen of Sweat
Gym goers are a changing group too. “What was once 40- to 65-year-olds, we are now seeing those 25 to 35 coming into private training,” Cooper says. The older demographics are still lifting and squatting, but the routine is starting younger than before. “People are prioritizing their health and fitness and need the structure and accountability that we can provide with our programs,” she says.
On the other side of downtown Minneapolis, the hot pink sweat spot tucked off an unassuming corner of Glenwood has seen similar growth in a new generation of fit fans. “With The FIRM being one of the oldest fitness studios in the Twin Cities, it’s been really special seeing a young and brave generation growing within the community that appreciates our long, rich history,” Ertl says. The FIRM fam is a melting pot of instructors and members who have been there since the early years (circa 1895) and the pink babies who joined during the pandemic. “Those who want to be at The FIRM really want to be here and show up fully for themselves and others,” she says.
The Company You Keep
As Maren Morris croons: the background’s only a secondary fixture. An aesthetic setting might make for a good post, but the pandemic has hammered home that what really matters is the people sweating it out alongside you. “After having the community aspect taken away in 2020,” Ertl says, “our clients value being together in person more than they ever have before.”
Studio ME’s owner Cooper has seen stronger bonds forge between her team and the members that stuck it out through the shutdown. “We supported each other and showed up for each other when the world was falling apart,” she says. “That had a much larger impact on the mental health of our members than I ever imagined. Even though we had members we didn’t see IRL for over 16 months, when we finally did, it felt like we didn’t miss a beat.”
Say what you will about working from home (love it, hate it), but working out from home just doesn’t have the same pajamas-until-noon appeal. “People are slowly coming back and needing our expertise more than ever,” Cooper says. While virtual continues to prevail as an option (not all bad on a blizzardy day), it’s clear that in-person fitness isn’t going the way of the movie theater.
“People have purchased a lot of equipment for their home gyms but are also finding that the at home routine isn’t working or isn’t yielding results. They miss the interaction,” Cooper says. “Peloton’s sales are way down—doesn’t that say something? People want to come back, they just want to know the gym has their back if they do.”
For those who need or prefer an at-home option, The FIRM continues to build its virtual arm and strives to create community even through screens. “As amazing and convenient as online workouts can be, no virtual experience can ever replace the value of being with a community in person,” Ertl says. “We think more people will come to miss the experience of real-life group fitness classes in the future.”
An in-person sweat sesh with other glossy humans is a key factor in motivation and discipline. DeBaun says Life Time has seen a large return to IRL workouts this year. “They missed the accountability and community of going to a place to exercise,” he says. “We know that if you’re in a group studio or one of our small group training classes, you’re much more likely to keep up with and achieve your health goals.”
It all comes back to the people on the scene. Isn’t it easier to eat cookies all alone in your kitchen? Just like it’s easier to omit a rep or drop your plank a few seconds early if no one is watching. “What we continue hearing from our members this year is that now more than ever, connections and relationships matter for their overall health,” DeBaun says. “There’s really something about going to one of our clubs and seeing your friends and all the familiar faces. It keeps you accountable and coming back.”
When all this (gestures wildly) began, we asked some tough questions. When will this end? We seem to have answered that with a return to unrestricted fitness (yay!). And simultaneously, the answer is never. Like mosquitos, COVID goes in waves of better and worse but will probably buzz around our ears year after year. But at the beginning, the bigger question was: What will the future gyms look like?
Originally, we thought we might never return to sweating two feet from each other, but I’d like to point out that I almost touched someone in a yoga class last week. (I know!)
“We are no longer the studio we were seven years ago, and I’ve had to let go of that,” Cooper says. She thinks large group classes sweating shoulder-to-shoulder will struggle under waves of variants and the associated wariness. “Big chain group fitness studios are still popping up, and people are going,” she says. “We are getting more and more of those people who once did that, and I do think people are realizing that they need structure and a program versus just a workout.”
Big box-ers like Life Time are homing in on smaller, niche elements of their business, like developing small group training programs of five to 12 participants paired with personal trainers.
Over the summer, Life Time committed to becoming the largest indoor pickleball provider and has opened hundreds of pickleball courts nationwide since, DeBaun says.
Kids missing out on activities and exercise has led to sedentary summers and school days of staring at screens (that shouldn’t happen until you’re a 9-to-5-er!). In response, Life Time is subbing in for gym class. “We introduced our exclusive group studio classes that used to be for adults only but now with kids’ versions,” DeBaun says. The classes are tailored to kids, and for those eight to 13, LT also launched an athletic training program called GameFace Sport.
Gyms have been hit hard—no one can disagree. But, as Kelly Clarkson belts out, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. And it certainly has. “The good news is staying fit and living a healthy life will never go out of style,” Ertl says. “People will always need a way to exercise indoors, especially in Minnesota. Our community may be smaller, but it’s stronger than ever. We anticipate continued growth as we learn to adapt to the new energy of the world.”