May 6, 2020

As Home Workouts Rise During Coronavirus, Gyms Sweat


When Jonathan Seryak moved into his apartment on New York City’s Upper East Side earlier this year he planned to join the high-end Equinox gym across the street. But as the coronavirus pandemic closed fitness centers and other businesses across the U.S., he set up in his apartment some weights that he has had since high school.

His new regimen of weightlifting in the apartment and running outdoors has Mr. Seryak, 31 years old, reconsidering the gym as well as the boutique spinning and yoga studios he visited with friends.

“I’m never going to sign up for a full brick-and-mortar gym with a monthly charge anymore,” says Mr. Seryak, who likes the low cost and convenience of his new workout. “I don’t need to coordinate, text somebody and say we’re gonna pay for this class—it’s just insanely easy.”

The pandemic has accelerated a shift away from physical gyms and toward at-home virtual fitness programs, which now go far beyond what Jane Fonda VHS tapes once provided. With new technology, internet-connected equipment and apps, people like Mr. Seryak say they are enjoying the attention, energy and community of in-person classes—shoutouts and competition included—without leaving the house.

That is spurring gyms and fitness studios to experiment with more digital offerings and ways to make customers feel safe, not only to attract revenue while many people are staying indoors, but also to entice them back once the pandemic lifts.

ClassPass, a subscription service that originally focused on providing physical access to a variety of fitness centers, began selling livestreamed barre, Pilates, aerobics and other classes in March, and now offers more than 50,000 on-demand workouts a week, some free and some up to $20 a class. Before the coronavirus outbreak, the majority of ClassPass subscribers attended workouts in studios near where they work or live. Now, more than 50% of ClassPass’s digital customers have joined virtual classes hosted by studios in another city.

“There is definitely a group of people saying: I really like this livestream thing,” says Zach Apter, chief commercial officer at ClassPass. “It’s less expensive, more convenient, it’s about as good as a workout in a studio.”

Yet, it could be difficult to run digital services alongside brick-and-mortar facilities, some analysts warn. Studios featured on ClassPass, for example, generally charge far less for virtual classes than in-person sessions. And some mainstream fitness centers and influencers are giving members digital content free on social-media platforms like Instagram.

“What was meant to be a generous gesture for at-home clientele will end up being destructive for the fitness industry because if you give away something for free it devalues how difficult it is to be a fitness instructor,” says Jennifer Maanavi, chief executive of Physique 57, a group of 13 barre studios with branches in the U.S. and abroad. Physique 57 offers a $25 monthly subscription to its library of more than 250 videos as well as live classes via Instagram for $30 a week. It expects to launch live classes for $20 on its website soon.

Equinox Group, which owns premium gyms and SoulCycle spinning studios, among other brands, is posting free workouts on Instagram. The group also launched its Variis mobile app in March, giving people who have paid for membership to one of its 99 U.S. gyms—which vary by club but start at roughly $190 a month (plus initiation fee) in New York City—free access to hundreds of virtual classes. Members can search for content based on the equipment and time they have.

Jason LaRose, chief executive of Equinox Media, the group behind the app, is hopeful customers will return to premium gyms and classes, hungry for social contact after the shutdown. “I like that high five with the instructor when it’s all over, I like that sip of water when we all finish, that’s cool,” Mr. LaRose says.

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Not everyone is opting for the cheapest way to exercise while in lockdown. In London, bride-to-be Lisa Durst, 26 , is doing more personal training sessions now that she can’t visit her favorite studios. She paid $45 per in-person session with trainer Hayley Ross before the pandemic, and pays half that now for sessions via WhatsApp.

Ms. Ross, also 26, uses video calls to keep an eye on clients’ technique, and to check whether they look tired as they lunge and squat in their living rooms. She has been approached by new customers in recent weeks as people look for ways to exercise safely indoors.

She also has a warning for newbie athletes making the most of the free virtual classes flooding social-media feeds. “If you’re not a practicing trainer, and you don’t know about how important rest and recovery is, and you’re doing a HIIT [high-intensity interval training] class every day, at some point you’re going to burn out, and you’re going to end up hurting yourself,” she says.

Kaavya Gupta, 28, used to go to the free gym in her San Francisco apartment building almost daily to use a Peloton stationary bike, paying just $14 a month to join virtual classes. Now the gym is closed but she has remained loyal to the Peloton app, following circuit training routines from her living room. Peloton has shared short yoga and meditation routines on a public Instagram page.

“There’s a sense of familiarity with it, so I haven’t tried something else,” she says. “I’m so used to the trainers and the content.”

Bottles of water or books work as makeshift weights, and coordinating group workouts with friends via Zoom breaks the monotony. But when the gym reopens, Ms. Gupta plans to get right back on the bike—after disinfecting it thoroughly.

In cities around the world, balcony singing, workouts and other improvised events can fill the silence of empty streets. Here’s how developing creative ways to connect with others is helping some people cope with coronavirus quarantines. Photo: Alberico/Fotogramma/Ropi/Zuma Press

Write to Avantika Chilkoti at Avantika.Chilkoti@wsj.com

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