Such monthly direct debits could be the first to go, with coronavirus changing people’s fitness habits
Since the worst of the lockdown ended, many of Britain’s parks have turned into splendid open-air gyms. Parkrun sadly remains in hibernation but everything else has bloomed. In my local park there are the joggers, cyclists, speed walkers, guys doing chin-ups on the goalposts, individuals stretching on mats, small groups doing workouts and the yoga enthusiasts with their sun salutations. Meanwhile, next door, the neighbours are impressively in the back yard every morning, hamstrings at the ready for Joe Wicks.
Before the coronavirus, the gym industry was booming. Ten million people – one in seven of the entire population – had a gym membership and as a country we were spending a record £5bn on keeping fit.
Almost all of that spending has come to a shuddering halt, with Britain’s 7,000 gyms and leisure centres still firmly shut. Will enough of us ever go back, now that new habits have been formed (the expansion in cycling is remarkable) and we have learned how to keep fit without paying costly monthly fees?
Reopening day for leisure facilities is scheduled for 4 July, with gyms in stage three of the government’s Covid-19 recovery roadmap. But if they do reopen on that date, they will look very, very different. In Switzerland, when gyms reopened in May after a two-month lockdown, members were told to arrive and leave in their gym clothes to avoid changing rooms, group exercise classes were banned as they simply couldn’t feasibly meet two-metre distancing requirements in studios, while lots of fitness machines were marked out of bounds. Users are expected to thoroughly wipe down every machine after use, with an army of cleaners thoroughly disinfecting the kit every hour.
The keenest users of gyms – urban 20- to 40-year-olds – have been among the worst hit by coronavirus job losses, which will only magnify when the furlough scheme ends. Monthly direct debits to the gym will be the first thing to be scrubbed.
Gym chains immediately froze direct debits when the lockdown began but there were also huge numbers of cancellations, with the industry losing between 15% and 23% of all its members.
What’s more, many gyms are now in the wrong place. If office workers do not return in any number until after the summer, with a possible permanent increase in working from home, city centre gyms will start to look somewhat redundant.
Huw Edwards, the chief executive of ukactive, which speaks on behalf of thousands of private and local authority gyms, disagrees. He says he is buoyed by polling that suggests 88% of members are keen to return. “People just want to get back out of the house. In Switzerland the return rates have been between 70% and 90%.”
The gym chain owner and former Dragons’ Den star Duncan Bannatyne believes people prefer the more structured exercise routines that gyms offer.
“We recently asked our members if they would be confident to return to their local health club in June or July if the correct safety measures are in place and more than two-thirds agreed they would,” he said as he joined a campaign launched this week to back the safe reopening of gyms.
We can also be certain that the allure of outdoor activity will lessen into autumn. Who is really going to work out in the park on a cold, dark and miserable evening in November?
But, ahem, what about the delicate matter of sweat? Can’t say I fancy a cloud of no-pain, no-gain sweat wafting into me as I venture through a gym in an era of coronavirus.
The industry knows it’s the question on the lips of many a club user. In a myth-busting Q&A guide sent to the clubs by ukactive this week, the very first question is: “Can you pass Covid-19 from sweat?” And their answer? “No, there is no current evidence that the virus can be spread by perspiration (sweat).” It cites the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, although it admits there is “limited data available on sweat/perspiration”.
In truth, the industry is putting a brave face on calamitous times. It knows that thousands of gyms and leisure operators could be forced out of business by crippling rent payments, which come back into effect at the end of this month.
That’s an issue for returning gym goers, too. Who is going to pay upfront for another 12-month gym membership to a club teetering on bankruptcy?
Unless the industry follows the Ryanair playbook and offers huge cut-price offers to get us back, or receives a government leg-up (it is pushing hard for a cycle-to-work-style tax rebate on gym membership), then it faces grim times indeed.