Sweat-inducing treadmill sprints and eye-popping deadlifts have long been the escape from life’s stresses for millions. The gym is a sanctuary for a broad cross-section of society, from those determined to psyche themselves up for a working day, or wind down away from the house. For some, the community around them induces cheer and motivates; for others, the gym is a place for intense individual concentration.

However, the view of gyms as havens from the outside world has been thrust into the spotlight in recent weeks, becoming the centre of a major political tug-of-war. Covid-19 restrictions have begun to tighten once again, but gym owners and users in several parts of the UK have responded in fighting spirits, resisting calls to close, and demanding that the essential value that gyms offer to physical and mental wellbeing be recognised.

Today, MTM Sport look at the role that gyms are having amid the pandemic, and what the future holds as they evolve and adapt in the fit tech revolution.

Gyms have been forced to implement stringent new hygiene measures to prevent the spread of the virus

Sport England’s most recent Active Lives survey laid bare the extent of the negative impact of lockdown on activity levels, as the proportion of the population classed as inactive grew by 3.4m between March and May, with the poor, elderly, and BAME groups particularly badly affected.  Meanwhile, the gym sector in the UK is precariously poised, having already had to cope with a halt on revenue in the first half of 2020. Concerns are similar across the world. Boutique fitness chain Barry’s, which currently boasts over 70 studios, mostly in the US, let go around two thirds of their staff, despite finding ways to transition their offer online. A new lockdown akin to the one experienced in the UK between March and July this year would spell disaster for the industry, and would be a blow to the morale of a country of gym goers just rediscovering their mojo.

Luxury gym brand Barry’s was one of hundreds of chains to close its doors earlier this year

How has the gym industry fared so far?

The sector’s apprehension ahead of customers’ return on 25th July was apparent and understandable. UKActive’s Fit Together campaign, launched in June, provided fitness operators with a toolkit to initiate stringent hygiene and social distancing measures, hoping to re-build consumer trust in the industry. With approximately three months having passed since gyms’ ‘new normal’ took hold, concerns about consumer hesitancy appear to have been overblown.

Despite fears that indoor gyms and leisure centres could be prime environments for the transmission of the virus, data shows that these settings have, in fact, been remarkably resilient in keeping infection rates low. 22 million visits nationwide have triggered just 78 confirmed cases among gym users, as of 13th September 2020, placing gyms well below supermarkets, pubs, bars and restaurants in settings where the public is likely to catch the virus. Some local areas also report that consumers have returned to gyms and swimming pools in their droves, countering some expectations that users would be hesitant to do so.

Could fit tech keep the heartbeat of gyms going?

Despite promising consumer appetite for the reopening of gyms, the first half of this year has still taken a dramatic toll on the industry, and so far, gyms’ losses have been fit tech’s gains. Peloton’s share prices have soared 350% this year, continuing to make gains even as leisure facilities have reopened. Strava’s usership has grown 35% since February, reflecting the surge in popularity for running and cycling in the great outdoors. There is nothing to suggest that this appetite for exercise will subside, as Asics predicts that the ‘running boom’ could become enduring. However, these trends should not necessarily come at the expense of gym activity. Whilst the vast majority of people accepted during the first half of 2020 that the closure of gyms and other leisure facilities was necessary to prevent the spread of Covid-19, the moment we are living through now could signal a sea change in how these facilities are seen in the national conscience.

The fundamental role of gyms in the nation’s state of health and wellbeing could see partnership opportunities for home fitness tech to be integrated into the gym environment. This could create hybrid offers suitable for the uncertain times that lie ahead.

One brand that is already doing just that is FiiT. Despite basing their core business model on home workouts being available on-demand through an app, their partnership with The Gym Group also allows their workouts to be streamed into many of the chain’s gyms. Schemes like this could be vital in the coming months and years as gyms learn to live with the growth of home fitness and ongoing social distancing requirements.

The UK’s #1 fitness app, FiiT, also offers its classes in some gyms

Expect other initiatives to incentivise consumers to visit the gym, such as Apple Watch’s gym partnerships in the US. The tech giant’s Apple Watch Connected programme offers perks to Apple Watch owners who attend certain gyms within the programme, including membership discounts and gift card perks.

Gyms and fit tech: allies not adversaries

The pandemic has dealt the gym industry an unprecedented disruptive shock, and one which will take a significant amount of time to recover from. However, the unique environment that gyms provide – which gives users the opportunity to escape, as well as to socialise – provides a lifeline for millions. With the continuing unpredictability of the future, fit tech need not be seen as a threat to the gym industry, but as an ally. Consumers’ growing appetite for fit tech invites gyms to seize this moment and integrate the technology into their surroundings, giving users another reason to return.