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Exercise in the Age of COVID 

COVID completely shut down gyms at the start of the pandemic, but are any of the changes to gym culture permanent?

During COVID-19's initial spread in spring of 2020 gyms were one of the first things to close as the country sought to understand the novel virus. Gym owners at the time were anxious to open back up and worried about running afoul of government mandates.

"I just basically sat at the front desk all day long. We tried to come up with what we thought the scenario might be when we were allowed to reopen," said Kip Heilman, general manager of the Athletic Club of Bend.

Fitness gyms across the country have had to evolve and adapt in the age of COVID. - UNSPLASH
  • Unsplash
  • Fitness gyms across the country have had to evolve and adapt in the age of COVID.

In the early days of the pandemic, guidance revolved around enhanced sanitation practices and social distancing. The initial shock and continued mandates haven't been easy on the fitness industry.

"That's actually been a little bit of a detriment to the business because we have lost some numbers to other businesses that were not enforcing mandates," Heilman said. "I have members here who worked for the governor, work in Oregon Health Authority, and I was not going to veer away from guidance and put them in an awkward position."

Membership at the Bend Athletic Club dipped from about 2,300 to 1,400 at the onset of the pandemic. Since then memberships has climbed back up, but there are still about 500 fewer members than what they had when the pandemic began. A study in November 2020 revealed that nearly 54% of fitness consumers either canceled or froze their gym memberships during the pandemic.

"I'm going to say if the mask mandate went away tomorrow I'd add 200 with that, too," Heilman said. "So those other 300 that aren't coming back, are probably those people who've developed new routines in their life. The folks that were scared the most, a lot of them are back. I think that for the most part, the people who aren't coming back just really feel like they can't work out in a mask."

A lot of gym policies adjusted for COVID will probably fall by the wayside once the pandemic is over, but Heilman said there are a couple things they're keeping once the gym returns to more normal operations.

"We had one weight room, now we have two, which unfortunately, required that we eliminate pickleball. We're still using one of our basketball courts as a group exercise studio. We're still wandering the building. And, you know, making sure people have masks on and operating the right way," Heilman said. "For the most part, spreading the equipment out I think has been welcomed, not just because of the fear factor. People don't like to be on top of each other."

Another way the gym is considering limiting density is lowering its membership cap. Heilman said that fewer people made the gym feel less hectic, and an overall more welcoming environment.

"What I don't want to do again is go after the 2,500 membership. It's just too crazy. And because our usage is down, we're averaging about 500 to 600 visits a day where we were at 800 to 1,200," Heilman said. "It feels so comfortable in this building, and so much less frenetic. I think I want to cap the membership when I get to the point where it's viable and I can actually put a little money in the bank."

Other policy changes are expected to stay in the medium term as the gym approaches more normal procedures, like staffing. Bend Athletic Club currently employs about 40% of what it did at capacity, and it's likely to inch forward than have a single hiring push. Employees now have a handful of new duties, and spend more time monitoring clients, cleaning and any minor tasks that may come up.

"I'm not going to try to increase our class schedule rapidly because it's too expensive," Heilman said. "These days, everybody's wearing a lot of different hats. And those things have been refreshing, and we've enjoyed the variety, but at some point we're going to have to get back to our real jobs."

The pandemic has had plenty of ups and downs, but for Heilman it solidified the value of the work he does.

"People are really realized that this isn't just a gym. It's a part of the life. And I don't know that it was shocking for us, but it really was kind of reaffirming for us when people started coming back," he said.

About The Author

Jack Harvel

Jack is originally from Kansas City, Missouri and has been making his way west since graduating from the University of Missouri, working a year and a half in Northeast Colorado before moving to Bend in the Spring of 2021. When not reporting he’s either playing folk songs (poorly) or grand strategy video games,...
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