How at-home workouts have transformed the fitness industry during the coronavirus pandemic

As states begin to ease lockdown restrictions and even look toward the reopening of businesses in accordance with specific phase-driven plans, many business owners are being tasked with reenvisioning their brick-and-mortar spaces and even supplementing their in-person services with those being offered virtually. This is particularly true for those in the fitness industry, who pride themselves in having taken early action to close their facilities in response to the coronavirus and adapting to best serve customers in need.

“It was a matter of a week or two that all 2,000 gyms shut down. It was voluntary at that point,” Chris Rondeau, CEO of Planet Fitness, tells Yahoo Life. “We had state-by-state [franchises] coming in and saying we're going to close these out. And then we got to the point where we just got ahead of it and said, why don't we just go ahead and shut [all locations] down now? Play it safe. The safety of our members and our team members are super important. So we went ahead and closed them all by mid-March.”

The nationwide chain froze the billing for all 15 million of its members and continued to communicate its efforts to improve cleaning protocol and procedures throughout all gyms. Still, Rondeau and his team knew that communicating with the community wasn’t enough. Instead, they needed to keep them moving.

“All of our clubs closed literally overnight, so how do we engage our members in the meantime and keep them active?” he recalls thinking. “We went that night immediately on Facebook Live and started having at-home workouts that we called ‘work-ins,’ and we had over 100,000 people a night tuning in to watch these Facebook Live workouts.”

Planet Fitness wasn’t alone in these efforts. In fact, the necessity to provide clients the opportunity to workout at home was something that countless other gyms and even boutique fitness studios acknowledged. When executing, however, each brand had to take their respective missions into account.

This was a unique challenge for Barry’s — the original studio for high-intensity interval training — where workouts typically rely on the atmosphere of its famous Red Rooms and equipment for its specific cardio and strength-training programs.

“One of the reasons why we've been around 21 years is the workout itself just really works. This combination of cardio and strength, this 50-50 combination helps people achieve results,” Joey Gonzalez, CEO of Barry’s, explains. “We also have a little bit of magic in the mix at Barry’s. When you arrive there are certain things that add to your experience, like our incredible sound system. Also, our lighting is really interesting. It’s all red and dimly lit. And so ​we adoringly refer to our workout room as the Red Room and people who take class love it.”

Gonzalez says that the company, which has 44 studios nationwide and was seeing 150,000 unique customers per week, took a proactive approach to the coronavirus, which would soon have a larger impact on businesses everywhere. Before doing so, he and his team tried to envision what Barry’s would look like in a “COVID world,” with considerations of how the in-person studios would ensure that clients and employees were safe.

“We weren’t actually able to execute any of those changes,” Gonzalez explains. “The short-term solution to that was launching Instagram Live workouts on a daily basis. Those workouts were bodyweight-only because many of us were in the same position where we were stuck at home. We had no equipment and we wanted to keep working out and we wanted to stay connected to people.”

For a brand that relies so heavily on the in-person environment that it created and the equipment that is integral to client success, this approach proved to be a mere preview of what Barry’s had coming. About a month into studio closures and stay-at-home orders, the company began to offer clients a kit of resistance bands for purchase before launching Barry’s At-Home — a virtual workout platform with four different class formats, from bodyweight and banded workouts to those utilizing weights and treadmills.

“While thinking through what we wanted the experience to be like, we knew that what people missed most was being at an actual Barry’s location,” Gonzalez says. “So what we have today with Barry’s At-Home is a high-touch experience where if you’re a first-timer, you get to spend a few seconds with the instructor before class starts to learn about how things work. Your moderator has a Barry’s front desk as a backdrop with a light board that says something very much like the experience you have in a real Barry’s studio. And you also can see other clients in the class and you can connect with people in a way that I think is very different than most of the virtual, digital workouts today. Also one of the things our clients love most is when instructors pay attention to their form when they call them out, maybe for not doing enough, or when they call them out for doing more than enough. And​ this gave the opportunity for instructors to really see people.”

Both Planet Fitness and Barry’s have retained clients through these methods while also welcoming first-timers who continue to return. What was most important for both businesses was staying true to the experience and offerings that they have in-person while connecting online. For trainers teaching their own methods and becoming their own fitness brands, like Kelly Brabants, the execution of virtual classes has looked a lot different and has even brought the industry back to basics.

The Boston native tells Yahoo Life that she started her own class nearly seven years ago after walking away from a career in dance to focus on fitness with an emphasis on making people feel good. What she designed is now known by over 72,000 followers and clients as Booty by Brabants, which is both a style of movement and a family-owned and operated brand of apparel that Brabants produces in Brazil where her family is from. But what she learned from building her own community within the city of Boston led to something much bigger once the coronavirus hit.

“We canceled over 12 events probably since March or more, big in-person events that took months and months to plan. Collaborations that we had already been in the manufacturing process that we were so excited to launch that weekend and it got completely shut out,” Brabants says.

But while she was set on making sure that her apparel business wouldn’t take a hit for the sake of the livelihood of her team, made up mostly of family, Brabants admits to having thought that she’d take the time off from teaching classes.

“This is a break from me. I'm just gonna take a three-month break,” she recalls thinking. “But it got to a point where people were reaching out to me, my diehard girls who would take my weekly classes, saying, ‘I really need the escape. I’m missing your workout so much.’”

Since propping her phone up on a pillow in her living room on March 22 and teaching her first Instagram Live workout, Brabants has gained 32,000 followers and counting, saying “business has been better than ever.” The difference between her method and larger fitness empires, however, is that she is the business. With that, she explains that there is pressure to perform as the sole instructor of her classes, rather than the various instructors that represent and teach for brands like Planet Fitness and Barry’s. At the same time, being her own boss has allowed Brabants to be her authentic self throughout this process, something she credits for her success.

“I am so passionate and so involved in every aspect of my business, every aspect of what I do, that it just pours out of me,” she says. “That authenticity and that originality and that passion is what people connect with.”

When moving forward in her career and carrying the success and the reach that she’s garnered during the coronavirus quarantine, Brabants stresses that both digital and in-person spaces will play a huge role in what Booty by Brabants becomes. “You can't do one without the other,” she says.

Rondeau and Gonzalez agree.

“I don't think at-home fitness will ever replace brick-and-mortar. I think it’s convenient, I think it’s a good supplement to a real gym experience,” Rondeau says, as Planet Fitness embarks on reopening gyms with the help of a 100-page COVID-19 operations playbook of protocol and procedures determined with the help of medical experts. “But it’s good that we can keep them active when they can’t get in. Whether the kids are busy or work is busy or whatever, that you can keep them active at home.”

“There have been a lot of changes,” Gonzalez says of the revamped Barry’s experience, which includes touchless temperature checks, floor markers indicating where people must stand to remain 6 feet apart and changes to the structure of in-person classes. “I believe that eventually, we’ll end up where we were in terms of in-person studio fitness because I think at the heart of it, there’s something to be said about human connection and what it feels like to experience something alongside someone else. ... But there’s definitely a space for everyone.”

Regardless of where the industry ends up in the near and more distant future, Brabants believes that the impact of the coronavirus has forever changed fitness.

“I genuinely think that these instructors don't even know how powerful their impact is and the people that have been taking their classes will stick with them forever,” she says. “I’m just so excited to be on this journey to see how this industry just evolves and grows.”

Video produced by Jenny Miller

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides. 

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