Where Will Americans Sweat It Out Now?

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“The gym” has been one of the last spots to reopen in the pandemic. Most of the U.S. has gotten there, but only this Monday are such indoor workout spaces permitted to operate, with one-third capacity, in New York State. Required inspections are delaying this further in the Big Apple. And New Jersey’s governor is still waiting and watching.

Yet, despite those closures and notwithstanding all the laments about a Quarantine 15 of extra body weight, it’s evident that fitness regimens were a part of life that Covid-19 wasn’t going to undo.  Gym rats have had to relocate and rejigger their workouts but appear often to have done so.

We’re talking about a sizable chunk of the U.S. population: 23% of adults engage in both aerobic and muscle-strengthening activity in a 2018 survey.  (More than half said they did at least the former.) A record 60 million Americans belonged to some kind of health club in 2017, suggesting much displacement during the pandemic, although of course many if not most such memberships ultimately lead to scant exertion.

Since March, urban parks and suburban streets have been unusually populated with runners as well as purposeful walkers, by various accounts.  The leeway offered by work-from-home (for those still employed) has spread out the lap times somewhat. Cycling demand, meanwhile, hasn’t been as strong for years—just try getting a new bike or related gear and you’ll see.

Other exercise equipment designed for home use has also boomed in sales, as reflected in stock prices of the makers and sporting-goods retailers. A dropoff is felt by suppliers to shuttered gyms, but overall business has remained strong.  Alli Schulman of the Sports & Fitness Industry Association: “I can say, on an anecdotal basis, from speaking with members of the industry, that at-home fitness equipment sales have skyrocketed throughout the last few months, seeing sales increases of up to 400%.” And sure enough, just as with bicycles, in-home gym equipment is in shortage.

A passion for particular exercise, as epitomized by the “runner’s high,” is so enduring that its stickiness even during trying times shouldn’t be surprising. But it may be that incremental activity, if only a daily walk, has been goaded by recognition of the novel coronavirus’ bead on the worst out of shape.

Whether the sort of golf that has gained new favor (boosting the results of a Dick’s Sporting Goods unit) will result in much exercise is unclear. That probably depends on whether an electric cart and beer are part of the package.

True workouts often are solitary endeavors or done with a single partner or trainer. Thus the discouragement of group functions during the pandemic is not a net negative for all but the busiest SoulCycle or yoga class. (Even these are now earnestly conducted outdoors with social distancing.)

So, while the fortunes of gym operators—and of many personal trainers whose income is derived from clients there—have suffered in the pandemic, the great body of Americans has found ways to keep fit. As with so many aspects of Covid-19 life, investments and livelihoods will be riding on how enduring these adapted habits and choices will be. Maybe in the process we’ll actually end up with a healthier nation.

Published by timwferguson

Longtime writer-editor, focusing on topics of business and policy, global and local.

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