The pandemic and the end of group fitness

Group fitness was the rare industry that thrived in the Internet Age. Now, it faces its greatest test

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published May 17, 2020 7:30PM (EDT)

Group of women stretching in yoga class (Getty Images/Andrea Wyner)
Group of women stretching in yoga class (Getty Images/Andrea Wyner)

Even before stay-at-home orders were issued across the nation, there were signs that the group fitness industry was facing a shake-up. 

In late February, my local yoga studio in East Oakland started reducing class sizes, spacing yoga mats six-feet apart, and encouraging us to lather our hands with Purell before and after class. Yoga, generally an anxiety-relieving discipline, suddenly became much more anxiety-inducing. Owners wondered if it would be sustainable, economically and culturally, to keep their studios open. As the virus's spread accelerated, state governments wisely shuttered non-essential businesses, including gyms and group fitness studios.

For two months now, yoga, pilates, Crossfit, Barry's Bootcamp, SoulCycle and every group exercise class in between has suspended its in-person experiences. As the fitness industry adapts to life in a pandemic, those of us who relied on group exercise for sanity and cardio have struggled to find other ways to fulfill our needs.

For many, group exercise classes are more than mere means of exercise, but also a place of community. Boot camps like Crossfit studios are where people go to form tight bonds and muscles. Yoga studios are a place of relaxation and spiritual transformation. Working out together has satisfied social needs that were dissolving in an increasingly lonely society. "Strikingly, spaces traditionally meant for exercise have become the locations of shared, transformative experience," Casper ter Kuile, author of "The Power of Ritual" and co-founder of Sacred Design Lab at Harvard Divinity School, wrote in a 2015 paper titled "How We Gather" which examined this phenomenon. Beyond the social aspect, these group exercise classes have helped with mental health problems, and become a hobby for many as well as a form of stress relief.

Obviously, group fitness is a luxury pursuit: the industry's pandemic-related machinations are minor compared to the greater misery and death wrought by the pandemic. Yet the changes in the group fitness industry are telling inasmuch as they are a harbinger of the greater cultural and economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Indeed, since the novel coronavirus has spread across the country, some group fitness studios have pivoted to offering classes to individuals at home via videoconferencing, while others have merely suspended classes. Now, as some states reopen, we are getting a glimpse into what group fitness will look like amid pandemic fears. And it appears that group fitness will bear little resemblance to the pre-pandemic communal experiences that captivated many.

Jennifer Dixon owns Thrive Yoga and Wellness in Chattanooga, Tenn., which, like most other fitness facilities across the world, has been closed since mid-March. Dixon tells Salon there will be quite a few changes when they're ready to reopen, including a reduction in classes.

"Our studio technically has two spaces to practice, but I will only hold classes in our larger room and, of course, tape off the appropriately spaced mat placements," Dixon said, adding that they are adding a mini air-conditioning unit to help circulate air, and HEPA filters which are marketed to trap harmful particles in the air. Additionally, there will be no lockers, and all attendees will be required to bring their own mats and props.

"We will not be requiring a temperature check, but a health check will be required with a new waiver," Dixon said. "The goal is to be able to provide small group fitness instruction and still be able to remain profitable."

Rocky Snyder, a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and owner of Rocky's Fitness Center in Santa Cruz, Calif., which offers group cardio and strength training, told Salon he's working with his team to figure out how to resume in-studio classes when the state guidelines allow. At the moment, his preliminary plan includes maintaining the six-feet rule, asking payments to be made prior to class, having participants bring their own props, and likely limiting the number of participants in a studio.

"The instructor might have to greet students wearing a mask, but once in place, the instructor will lift the mask in order to teach," Snyder said. "We also think it a good idea that the instructor sanitize the door knobs prior to leaving the studio."

According to a survey of 300 group fitness studios conducted by ClassPass, a subscription-based app that allows users to drop in at fitness centers without having to become members, 49 percent of the studios on ClassPass plan to reduce their class capacity by half. Fifty-eight percent said they will also no longer offer hands-on adjustments and 31 percent plan to experiment with outdoor classes.

"It is likely that many studios will limit their class capacity by half to give participants ample space to spread out safely, and that many instructors will no longer offer hands-on adjustments," Mandy Menaker, a spokesperson for ClassPass, told Salon. "This visually may mean fewer bikes in a cycling class, or more spread out treadmills during an indoor running class."

Yet I wonder if these added layers will deter many from attending in the first place, perhaps dooming some studios. As Salon's Melanie McFarland recently wrote, small fitness studios are suffering greatly during this pandemic. Many group fitness instructors have understandably balked at the expectation that they will offer their classes online, for free — particularly given that exercise is crucial for staying sane during stay-at-home orders. "For independent teachers now teaching out in their homes, the obligation to simultaneously maintain the places where they usually teach hasn't budged," McFarland wrote. "Utility bills still need to get paid, and teachers themselves still need money to pay for licensing fees and, yes, groceries."

Ilyse Rogozenski, an Athletics and Fitness Association of America–certified group fitness instructor in New Providence, New Jersey, said she doesn't see group fitness going anywhere.

"It's not the beginning of the end," Rogozenski said. "People need to exercise and stay healthy and I think that's why it's been around for a while."

Still, the allure of the group fitness studio does not translate well into a YouTube or Zoom video. While retail and department stores have struggled to adapt to the Internet Age, fitness studios survived, even thrived, because they formed a rare, irreplaceable opportunity for in-person community — which is likely why they became a staple of the modern self-care movement. "Wellness centers of all kinds .... did a good job of creating a place of human interactions and community and group experiences," Beth Mcgroarty, the Vice President of Research at the Global Wellness Institute, told me in December. 

Is social distancing compatible with such experiences? Snyder says that he thinks group fitness will weather the pandemic. 

"Our clients cannot wait to get back into the studio to reignite that deeper sense of community," Snyder said. "The person to person experience in the studio is deeply desired, even if it is from 6 to 9 feet away from one another."

"If we expect our group fitness experience to feel the same as it did pre-pandemic, we will of course be disappointed," Nathalie Theodore, JD, LCSW, a psychotherapist in Chicago, told Salon. "But if we keep an open mind, there may even be some pros to the 'new normal,'" she emphasized. "Smaller class sizes may mean a quieter and more relaxing experience, with more individualized instruction from teachers; this may help cultivate a more intimate sense of community, which is beneficial for our mental well-being."

In "The Joy of Movement: How Exercise Helps Us Find Happiness, Hope, Connection, and Courage," Kelly McGonigal writes: "Physical activity helps us tap into instincts that have allowed humans to survive for millennia," which include the abilities "to persist, cooperate, and form communities of mutual support."

Clearly, movement is innate to human survival; hunter-gatherer communities walked miles together every day. It is also a source of resilience. Now, it is inevitable that working out together will take a different form. In the meantime, let's enjoy the convenience of rolling out of bed to attend a virtual workout class. Nothing lasts forever.

By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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