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Will gyms, going to a fitness club to work out go the way of arcades and Blockbuster Video stores?

The pandemic has reshaped how many Americans exercise and upended the fitness industry, accelerating the growth of high-tech home workout equipment and virtual classes.

Cindy Cicchinelli uses her Peloton bike at her Pittsburgh townhouse. She says she has become a dedicated Peloton user after going to her gym in Pittsburgh for years.
Cindy Cicchinelli uses her Peloton bike at her Pittsburgh townhouse. She says she has become a dedicated Peloton user after going to her gym in Pittsburgh for years. She’s not alone in switching.
Keith Srakocic / AP

Going to the gym was always part of Kari Hamra’s routine — until last year’s government-ordered shutdowns forced the Missouri resident to replace the workouts with daily rides on her Peloton stationary bike.

That’s when she discovered, to her surprise, she did not miss the gym. At least not the driving back and forth, filling water bottles, changing clothes and taking time away from her husband and two boys.

Now that her gym in Springfield, Missouri, is open again, she’s slowly returning. But finding a more convenient exercise schedule at home and seeing a surge of COVID-19 cases in her hometown have her questioning how much she needs the gym.

The pandemic has reshaped how Americans exercise and upended the fitness industry, accelerating a new era of high-tech home workout equipment and virtual classes.

Thousands of small fitness centers and studios that were forced to close a year ago are gone for good. Others are struggling, have redesigned their spaces, turned toward more personal workouts and added online training.

But can they survive the onslaught from the apps and pricey bikes and treadmills? Or will they go the way of arcades, Blockbuster and other video rental shops and, increasingly, many bookstores?

Interactive fitness equipment maker Peloton is betting the workout-from-home trend is here to stay. It broke ground Monday on its first U.S. factory, outside Toledo, Ohio, where it plans to begin production in 2023.

Demand surged so much during the pandemic that some Peloton customers had to wait months for bikes. The company says the backlog has waned, and sales have continued to soar, up 141% in the first three months of this year.

Company founder and chief executive officer John Foley says it’s inevitable that technology-driven home fitness will become dominant much the way streaming services have changed TV and movie watching, calling the idea of going to a gym “a broken model of yesteryear.”

Early in the pandemic, many small and independent gyms and fitness studios turned to video platforms for yoga and Pilates classes and training sessions because it was the only way they could connect with members.

“Now, there’s an expectation for it,” says Michael Stack, chief executive officer of Applied Fitness Solutions, which has three fitness centers in southeast Michigan.

Small gyms can’t match the production quality and visual appeal of the high-tech companies, but they can counter with online offerings that feature personal attention and closer relationships between members and staff, Stack says.

Jeff Sanders, chief executive officer of Apex Athletic Health Club in Penfield, New York, disagrees.

“Digital is great, but we’ve seen surveys that show people want to stay active but miss the interaction and being around others,” says Sanders, who’s planning to open a third, smaller location near Orlando, Florida, offering a more intimate, boutique experience.

In the fitness industry, Sanders says, “Everyone’s making decisions just to survive.”

About 9,000 health clubs — 22% of the total nationwide — have closed since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, costing 1.5 million workers their jobs, according to the International Health Racquet & Sportsclub Association.

The industry group is lobbying Congress to approve a $30 billion relief fund for the fitness industry as many clubs struggle to recover from lost revenue and membership declines while still owing back rent.

More closings are likely this year, says Helen Durkin, the association’s executive vice president of public policy. Still, Durkin says she doesn’t think the workout-from-home trend will doom fitness centers. She says plenty of exercise fanatics will still do both — lending that view credence is that 40% of Peloton users have gym memberships, according to the company.

Cindy Cicchinelli has become a dedicated Peloton user after going to her gym in Pittsburgh for years.

“I can roll out of bed and not worry about running to the gym,” Cicchinelli says. “And I don’t have to add an extra half hour for my commute.”

Fitness industry leaders say research has shown that health clubs pose no more risk of spreading the virus than other public spaces. But San Francisco gym owner Dave Karraker thinks it will be a long time before many people are comfortable going into a big, tightly packed fitness center.

“They are going to be thinking about ventilation and air purifiers and how long ago was this equipment sanitized,” says Karraker, who reconfigured MX3 Fitness’s two small studios and created personal workout spaces.

He’s not surprised people are coming back even though safety remains a concern.

“They don’t want to live this solitary existence anymore,” he says. “Let’s face facts, gyms are great ways to meet new people, especially if you’re single.”