‘I’ll never go back to the gym again’

Ben Barbanel now even does work calls while out exercising January is normally a boom

Ben Barbanel at home
Ben Barbanel now even does work calls while out exercising

January is normally a boom time for gyms, as many of us strive to get healthy for a new year’s resolution.

But continuing coronavirus restrictions mean that gyms in many areas are closed. While others can still open, they may not offer any group classes.

At the same time, an explosion in fitness tech means that some people are experiencing incredible transformations from their own home, or their local park, or on the streets near their house. What does this mean for the future of the gym sector?

Ben Barbanel lost three stone (19kg) during England’s first lockdown last year, when exercise was one of the few reasons to leave the house.

The former gym-goer would obsessively track his steps using a Garmin watch, racking up as many as 45,000 a day – not far off a marathon.

Ben, who works in finance in London, had put on weight after recovering from major surgery for a bowel condition. But the shift to homeworking meant he could take meetings while out for a walk.

“It fitted in with my lifestyle – I hated the gym and being bullied by a personal trainer,” he says. “I thought some clients might have a problem if I was on Zoom, and they saw me not behind a desk, but they all thought it was amazing [that I was out exercising], and that spurred me on.”

He’s one of many who say they will never set foot in a conventional gym again.

Instead, they are hooked on the technology that kept them fit in lockdown, whether that’s “wearable tech” like fitness trackers and smartwatches, or livestreamed exercise classes.

Vicky Malmsjo
Vicky Malmsjo started posting on the Her Spirit community fitness app

Vicky Malmsjo from Essex downloaded an app called Her Spirit, which offers a supportive community to help women get active.

Despite “hating technology”, the swimming coach, who at one point was in the gym seven days a week, finds the app simple to use. She combines it with a fitness tracker so she can monitor her improvements.

“I’m quite a competitive person, so even though I was being only competitive with myself each week, I tried to increase what I was doing. I ended up walking 10 to 15km (six to nine miles) a day,” says Vicky.

“I started to post on the app every day, and other people encouraged me. If it hadn’t been for those ladies at Her Spirit I don’t think I would have done it. Through the whole of lockdown they offered different challenges and things to keep your mind busy.”

Both Ben and Vicky have been using relatively inexpensive technology to keep themselves motivated.

But for others, the time and money saved last year – from not going to gyms, not commuting, cancelled holidays, and shut bars and restaurants – has prompted a splurge on expensive internet-connected fitness equipment that enables them to livestream exercise classes and compete with others around the world.

Sarah Muse on her Peloton bike
Sarah Muse says that exercise has improved her state of mind

One of the most well-known of these digital platforms is Peloton, which makes interactive exercise bikes. Its annual revenues hit $1.8bn (£1.3bn) in the 12 months to the end of June 2020, double that of the year before. User numbers rose by the same amount to 3.1 million.

Sarah Muse bought herself a Peloton bike after graduating and moving back in with her parents near Washington DC.

“I’m competing against my family members, staying active, and just riding out this pandemic until I can move out of my parents’ house,” she says.

“Though initially expensive, after I graduated during this pandemic mess, I saved up for a post-graduation trip that never happened. Maybe now my Peloton will get me fit for a future trip I can take!

“My mindset has definitely improved from increased exercise, and I’m happy to see it is positively changing my extended family’s lives.

“I am truly not interested in a gym membership, but hopefully, I can join a yoga studio when the world returns to somewhat normal, and it is safer in the US.”

New Tech Economy
New Tech Economy

New Tech Economy is a series exploring how technological innovation is set to shape the new emerging economic landscape.

But all this change might not necessarily mean a bleak future for the gym industry.

In October, a UK petition to prevent gyms closing received more than 600,000 signatures, while “When will gyms reopen?” was one of the most popular UK search trends of 2020.

Humphrey Cobbold is the head of UK chain PureGym, where active memberships in December were at 76% of the same time a year earlier.

He says gyms have worked hard to make themselves Covid-secure, and have offered a boost to physical and mental wellbeing during the pandemic.

“Not everyone can afford an exercise bike at home or has a large house or garden,” he says. “Many people live in small flats, and in shared accommodation, so gyms are the only place they can satisfactorily work out, especially in the cold and dark winter months.”

Mintel leisure analyst Lauren Ryan thinks gyms will be able to grow again, if they can keep up with what consumers want. She says they should consider a hybrid model, and also run paid-for internet classes.

“It would be foolish to think that gyms can just go on the way they were before and not expect a loss of interest,” she says.

“They need to start thinking about their brands as not just location-based, but as wellbeing focused, that have locations but can deliver to the comfort of your own home or outdoors. And have something that differentiates them from digital fitness products. I think that’s where we will see a lot of innovation.”

London-based social media consultant Lisa Williams has been impressed by the way her gym, Frame, adapted.

Lisa Williams exercising
Lisa Williams says that online classes are easier to fit around her family commitments

“I had children to look after and work to do, but they offered short online classes in pandemic conditions, things you could do in a flat that were quiet so not to annoy your neighbours.

“They offered classes without equipment, or I could do mine on my kids’ trampoline. Their trainers are silly and fun and high energy, which was exactly what you need in the doom and gloom of the pandemic.”

However, she is unlikely to ever return to the gym in person.

“I’m definitely not going back to the gym. I’m a busy working mum, and there is always a reason not to exercise. Online workouts are really good for me because I’m time poor.”

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