The Pandemic Is Turning Americans Against the Gym. That Could Be a Good Thing for the Nation’s Health

Jack Raglin, a kinesiology professor at the Indiana University Bloomington School of Public Health, has been a weightlifter for 45 years. But he stopped going to the gym during the COVID-19 pandemic, and now has “no interest in going back to the university weight room.”

That doesn’t mean he’ll stop exercising—only that he won’t be hitting the gym. Raglin started working out at home during the pandemic, using weighted clubs for strength-training. “I intend to [use] them for the rest of my life,” Raglin says.

He probably won’t be the only one ditching the weight room. Only 20% of Americans said they’d feel comfortable going to a gym as of July 13, according to a Morning Consult poll. Another survey, conducted by market-research firm OnePoll and commissioned by LIFEAID Beverage Co., found that 25% of Americans never plan to go back. (Some people may not even have a gym to return to. Chains 24 Hour Fitness and Gold’s Gym filed for bankruptcy due to pandemic-related closures, and an April report from investment bank Piper Sandler said many of the country’s 40,000 independently owned fitness studios “may not survive” shutdowns.)

It’s not only fear of getting sick that’s keeping Americans from their old workout routines, though that certainly plays a part. About a quarter of people said they simply don’t miss working out in a gym or studio, according to a June survey from medical website Healthline.

While surveys like these must be taken with a grain of salt, the data certainly suggest gym culture is changing in the U.S. That could actually be a very good thing for the nation’s health.

Many people, even in non-pandemic times, could care less about the gym. But there are also plenty who are used to getting up and going to the gym every single day, as innately as they’d brush their teeth. While their routine may have been interrupted by the pandemic, Or Artzi, a fitness instructor and personal trainer in New York City, thinks most of those people won’t change their ways once gyms reopen for good. “You can’t replace human contact,” Artzi says. People will also miss “the weights, the equipment,” she says. “Not everyone can have their own gym” at home.

Every fitness instructor, researcher and industry expert interviewed for this story expressed some variation of Artzi’s view, and said they can’t picture a post-pandemic world devoid of gyms. T’Nisha Symone, a 10-year fitness industry veteran, says the pandemic hasn’t dissuaded her from following through on plans to open a brand new gym in New York City (Blaque, a luxury fitness club for the Black community) once it’s possible to do so. “The fitness industry is going to have to change going forward,” she says, leaning more heavily on technology and being more transparent about safety practices, but “we also firmly believe that people will go back to gyms.”

That’s probably true—but millions of people weren’t going to gyms at all before COVID-19 hit. And for them, the pandemic may, counterintuitively, bring about positive change.

Americans do not love exercise. Only about a quarter get enough of it, according to the government’s definition: at least 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity each week, plus two strength-training sessions. Meanwhile, roughly the same percentage of Americans sit for more than eight hours per day, which is linked to a host of chronic health issues and a shorter lifespan.

The ingrained idea that people need to go to the gym to get fit is part of the problem. There are countless reasons for someone to dislike gyms. Maybe they can’t afford membership dues, or their local facility doesn’t offer child care, or they don’t have time to drive back and forth, or they feel self-conscious exercising in front of people, or it freaks them out to see a bunch of humans running around like hamsters on wheels. If they’re a person of color, non-binary, older or bigger, they may feel unwelcome in environments often overwhelmingly inhabited by young-ish, fit, white, cisgendered people. The list goes on.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown there are other options. Digital workout classes are exploding in popularity. People have bought so much exercise equipment that dumbbells and bicycles sold out in many places, and $2,000-Peloton bikes are being installed in homes across America. Good, old-fashioned running is having a “moment.” Daily walks have become a nation’s pastime-slash-therapy.

“There’s a fitness revolution at work here,” says Shanel Anderson, who has begun offering digital and outdoor classes from her yoga studio, Soul City Yoga in Lynn, Mass. “A lot of people are reconsidering what works for them, and also becoming more flexible and more open to different types of fitness.”

If you’re reading this skeptically, reflecting on all the TV you’ve binged and steps you haven’t walked over the past few months, well, you have company. Early data about physical activity during the pandemic have not been encouraging.

A research letter published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in June analyzed fitness-tracker data and charted a dramatic, international decrease in daily step counts after the World Health Organization called COVID-19 a pandemic in March, which inspired many stay-at-home orders. In the U.S., average step counts for much of March and April decreased by more than 20% compared to the two months prior, according to the paper.

Self-reported exercise data have shown similarly discouraging trends. A Canadian preprint study from June suggested only 5% of kids there got enough exercise during the pandemic. And in a May preprint paper, previously active adults in the U.S. said they were exercising about 33% less during the pandemic than before.

That’s bad, but it doesn’t necessarily spell disaster. It’s not surprising that previously active people would exercise less during the pandemic, since many of them were likely frequent gym-goers who weathered a major disruption in routine when things shut down. In many ways, the more meaningful metric is yet to come: how many people will become active for the first time in the aftermath of the pandemic.

Anderson says many of the students who’ve joined her digital yoga classes during the pandemic were regulars at her physical studio in pre-coronavirus times, but she’s also noticed “a little pocket of folks who had never tried” yoga before. She says that’s especially encouraging for her as a Black fitness professional. “This virtual revolution is better overall for the conversation around accessibility,” she says. A person of color “may feel intimidated to go to a predominantly white studio, but if you can get your first sample in your own home, those are small steps forward.”

That’s a huge opportunity, not just for communities of color, but also for anyone who’s struggled to find a place in the fitness industry due to discrimination, cost barriers, geographic location or any number of other reasons. There will always be challenges, of course. Even if an online fitness class is cheap, short and can be done in pajamas on your bedroom floor, “people would need to want to do that,” says Jacob Meyer, an assistant professor of kinesiology at Iowa State University and co-author of the study that found active Americans were exercising 33% less during the pandemic. Studies have proven that many people who think they don’t have time to exercise actually do; they’re just not motivated to use their precious free time to do it. That’s always going to be an obstacle.

But traditional exercise, like that you’d do at the gym or in a workout class, has never been the only way to stay healthy; less intimidating (and potentially more broadly appealing) activities, like walking, gardening and dancing, are often just as good. Research shows just about any regular physical activity, regardless of duration or intensity, lowers your risk of developing chronic diseases and lengthens your lifespan. If people begin to think of physical activity for what it is—anything that gets your body moving—millions may reconsider their aversion to exercise and reap the benefits.

“If you only think of exercise as going to the gym…that’s not reality for many people,” Meyer says. “Reality for many people is, ‘I could go for a walk or a jog or a bike ride.’”

The pandemic, by forcing people to get creative with their newfound homebound time, has prompted many to find or rediscover those sorts of activities, without necessarily considering them part of a workout regimen. “Many people have found those other more natural, common ways to get activity in,” says Cedric Bryant, president and chief science officer at the American Council on Exercise. “I don’t think that’s going to go away.”

Already, Meyer notes, the physical activity data he’s been tracking suggests people are spending about an hour more time outside each day than they were at the beginning of the pandemic. Part of that might be due simply to the warmer weather in the northern hemisphere, but Meyer sees it as a promising sign that people are moving around more—hopefully in ways they can sustain for years to come, gym membership or not.

“If I had to predict, I’d say there’s probably going to be more of a shift to light activity” in the future, Raglin says. “People who’ve been stuck at home with free time…are realizing they don’t need a gym and they can achieve a lot.”

The pandemic has also given people new motivation to exercise, even if that’s just a stroll around the block, Bryant says. COVID-19’s brutal toll on people with underlying conditions has made some people get serious about their general health, he says, and living with massive amounts of stress and anxiety has made many look after their mental wellness. Physical activity is one way to achieve both goals.

“I’m guardedly hopeful that there will be a permanent difference in a lot of people who either weren’t exercising or weren’t doing that much and have come out of this with a different perspective on health and taking care of themselves,” Raglin says. “Exercise is a profound way of doing that”—no gym required.

Write to Jamie Ducharme at [email protected].

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