What is the future of fitness?

Eufemia Didonato

Gyms are going to great lengths to Covid-proof their workout spaces The reopening of fitness facilities on 25 July had been hailed, for the 10m UK gym members, as a long-awaited step fundamental to boosting the nation’s health needs. Yet the release of the government’s obesity strategy last week left […]

Gyms are going to great lengths to Covid-proof their workout spaces
Gyms are going to great lengths to Covid-proof their workout spaces

The reopening of fitness facilities on 25 July had been hailed, for the 10m UK gym members, as a long-awaited step fundamental to boosting the nation’s health needs. Yet the release of the government’s obesity strategy last week left the matter of physical activity mostly untouched – save from encouraging doctors to prescribe it to patients struggling with their weight (something they are already able to do) and making more provisions for cycling.

Exercise has a “central role to play in obesity and weight management, as well as the overall improvement of health, happiness, quality of life and economic prosperity,” said Huw Edwards, CEO of ukactive, the industry trade body, in response. “This strategy must place diet, mental health and physical activity on equal footing.”  

Edwards hopes the government will “harness the value of physical activity”; something that, prior to lockdown, would undeniably have involved the UK’s 7,000 gyms. But the closure of fitness facilities for four months has left many seeking pastures of exertion new; one million Brits have downloaded the Couch to 5k running app since lockdown began – a 92 per cent increase on the same period last year – while sales of home fitness equipment had shot up by 170 per cent by the time our first month of domestic confinement ended.

On the day fitness centres and pools were allowed to reopen, a third remained closed, unable to contend with the Covid-proofing measures required; ukactive estimates that the sector needs a £800m cash injection, while a study found that 59 per cent of Americans do not plan to renew their gym membership once the pandemic ends.

What, then, does the future of fitness look like?


Coronavirus isn’t transmitted through sweat, but for many, the idea of being in close, perspiration-flecked quarters will be dissuasion enough: “it is up to [gyms] to be incredibly vigilant when it comes to cleaning and social distancing,” says Hannah Lanel, co-founder of boutique fitness studio The Fore, who recognises “the unease that comes from having to trust strangers in a studio environment, not necessarily for a client’s own health and well-being, but for their friends and family who are in more vulnerable groups.” From sanitisation dispensers to clean air pumps, temperature checkers and one-way systems, proving that they are safe will be crucial to establishments’ survival.

At CRANK, a studio that prior to lockdown offered strength training and spin classes, the latter have been done away with entirely “for the foreseeable future” and on-site personal training has been made a permanent fixture. “The face to face time and physical activity has been something that so many have been craving,” explains co-founder Zade al-Salim, adding that one-on-one training may make some more confident, post-Covid, due to lack of other gym-goers nearby.

“The overall consensus is that people are happy to be back,” says Claire Finlay, director of Transition Zone, but notes that “for this time of year we are a lot quieter.” Prior to their reopening, a survey of her members found that 67 per cent were keen to return to group sessions – which are now 40 per cent smaller at six attendees per session – and that “the main concern was cleaning and social distancing.”

Data engineer Ben Taylor cancelled membership at his local Essex gym, where he had previously worked out three times per week, due to just that. “I do not trust [them] to have kept the standards up,” he says, paying the cancellation fee and instead signing up to a less busy – and Covid-clean – outfit nearby, following up each visit with an immediate shower and wash of his clothes, “just to minimise any risk.”

Going solo 

In a study of 14,000 people, trainer brand Asics found that 43 per cent of regular exercisers have been doing more physical activity than they were pre-lockdown. And, for former fitness naysayers, more flexibility around working hours has had a transformative effect: Sam Griffiths, 29, has lost 2 stone since lockdown began, with “exercise and the ability to work out at home [being] the difference compared to pre-lockdown life.” This period “has really given me a huge chance to hit restart on my health.”

Screen time 

Griffiths’s regime has included four Zoom training sessions each week – something the majority of fitness outfits swiftly turned to once lockdown began. And some plan to stay in the digital ether: Twerk After Work, which runs classes in the UK, the Netherlands and Ghana, is remaining online-only in the capital for now, head trainer and CEO Bam Kuteyi explains, as they “want to make sure our community is protected. Some of our current clients are high risk and many are still working from home so it doesn’t make sense for us to go back to in-person [sessions] in London just yet.”

Lanel believes that online classes are here to stay. “We feel strongly that the future of fitness will be a pairing of both the real and virtual world,” she explains. “The way consumers interact with fitness has changed and we must embrace it.”

Race to the (virtual) finish

Continued digital offerings may be a lifeline for mass fitness events like marathons, too. Most have been cancelled, with more optimistic organisers – like the London Marathon – choosing to postpone instead; some small glimmer of hope for the UK’s 97,000 long-distance runners. In the interim, virtual alternatives remain in vogue: next month sees the Super League Triathlon Arena Games, blending the real and digital as a handful of athletes – including British Olympic runner Jonny Brownlee – undertake the socially distant competition on Zwift, a virtual indoor cycling platform that has seen four times more miles ridden than this time last year. And in September, the eighth Rapha Women’s 100, a long distance cycle race, will go digital for the first time as “in the year of lockdown and social distancing, riding together – online, on the road or otherwise – has never been more important,” according to its organisers.

All of the wild 

An outdoor fitness class at the David Lloyd Club in Chigwell - PA
An outdoor fitness class at the David Lloyd Club in Chigwell – PA

Outdoor yoga classes were among many to start up before indoor facilities reopened and, from High Intensity Interval Training to boxing, parks have become the new studio floor. Al-fresco workouts have become “increasingly popular” says Sam Gregory, head trainer at Stratford’s F45, which during lockdown began holding outdoor classes at some of its 50 UK studios. “A lot of people will be feeling a little nervous as more and more things open up and our new ‘normal’ sets in, so we do anticipate that outdoor training will continue to be successful, especially through the summer months, until people are more comfortable being in confined spaces.”

Breathe easy 

According to ClassPass, a pay-as-you-go fitness booking platform that operates in 28 countries (and has recently introduced a function showing outlets’ hygiene measures), post-Covid exertion has changed somewhat: since gyms reopened on 1 July in Amsterdam, pilates and yoga now account for two of the three most-booked activities on the app. “It’s easy to feel mentally unbalanced and overwhelmed in times such as these, especially when, as an individual, you have very little control,” says Fi Clark, head of yoga at studio FLY LDN, of its popularity, adding that taking time to “declutter the mind” is more essential than ever.

On the button 

Getting a slot – whether on a yoga mat, in a swimming lane or squash court – may prove trickier than before, though: with many facilities now operating at reduced capacity, booking ahead has become crucial. BeActive’s 15 south London tennis courts have been booking out within minutes of their release each day; at lidos across the UK, habitual swims have been replaced by equally tricky-to-secure slots that have left some waiting a week for a dip. Prior to lockdown, nearly 5m Brits swam regularly each month; on 25 July, less than 20 per cent of local authority-run pools were able to reopen, while almost a third of all pools may remain closed until 2021, CEO of Swim England Jane Nickerson has warned. “It offers huge physical and mental health benefits – and helps save the NHS and social care system more than £357m a year,” she said. We face the real risk of swimming becoming a forgotten activity.”

Booking has perhaps been a more helpful tool for those testing the waters of indoor classes. Annette Hill, 55, “felt cautious” on her first trip to Body Pump but, with the floor clearly marked out for five attendees, “I felt very safe in there as it was such a small group, and a very well controlled environment.”

Have you changed the way you exercise since the coronavirus pandemic? Tell us in the comments below

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