After a year in which people spent months at home getting very little exercise, New Year’s resolutions gained a little more weight in 2021.

The fitness industry can attest to that. Although the coronavirus is limiting the gym’s capacity while some of it will be completely closed, the traditional membership surge in January has matched and in some ways exceeded that of previous years. Part of it may be related to the predictable explosion of online courses and a move toward maintaining mental and physical health.

“It’s not about bikini body goals because who knows when we’ll be back on vacation,” said Josh McCarter, executive director of fitness booking platform MindBody. “COVID-19 has made people think more holistically about health.”

MindBody said it is on track to hit the typical 30% increase it usually sees in the New Year, largely thanks to the virtual workout pivot. About 50% of the platform’s virtual bookings are now for yoga as more customers seek classes that focus on mindfulness. “In addition to physical well-being, emotional, mental and spiritual fitness has a higher priority.”

The online shift is helping experts say it will mean a permanent change in how the $ 32 billion industry works. While 75% of consumers surveyed said they will return to pre-pandemic routines and the actual gym at some point, many said they will keep a virtual component – a phenomenon with far-reaching implications for the sector.

COVID-19 has accelerated the adoption of a hybrid online / in-person workout model that more stationary gyms are likely to maintain as the pandemic recedes. Fitness club owners grappling with declining memberships have quickly caught on. According to fitness research firm ClubIntel, 72% now offer on-demand and livestream group training, up from 25% in 2019.

At the height of gym closings last March, McCarter said class bookings were down 85% everywhere. In the US, the return to in-person studio classes has been uneven, in part due to varying state and local restrictions. For example, in New York and California, bookings were about 50% of the 2019 numbers, while in states like Arizona and Georgia they were only 15% lower.

Lifestyles that suddenly became sedentary – no commuting, no travel, and heavy work from home and distance learning – weighed on fitness regimes. A November study by ClubIntel of 2,000 US gym members found that 54% of respondents either frozen or canceled their membership.

For people who have continued some sort of exercise routine, virtual fitness was key. Home exercise was gaining traction even before COVID-19, led by companies like Peloton and Mirror. According to a MindBody survey, around 80% of fitness consumers have done live streaming workouts since the pandemic began, compared with 7% in 2019.

By September, when more than 87% of fitness clubs in the US reopened, 60% of members still hadn’t returned to the gym, according to ClubIntel, while 20% had stopped training altogether.

“As your pendulum patterns change, so do your exercise patterns,” said Jason LaRose, CEO of Equinox Media, a subsidiary of the Equinox Group tasked with expanding the luxury gym operator’s digital platform. Even if the COVID-19 vaccine is slowly rolled out, the personal fitness experience will still be fearful and will remain for some time.

Of those surveyed who stopped going to the gym, 57% said that COVID-19 was not adequately controlled to warrant return, according to the ClubIntel study.

However, the move to virtual workouts improved access to different types of classes. LaRose also highlighted the need for a balance between physical and mental wellbeing.

“We have seen an incredible surge in meditation since the pandemic began,” LaRose said. And interest in the New Year continues – he cited a 25% increase in meditation classes for the week ended January 2nd. “This is evidence of how people’s thinking about general wellbeing has expanded.”

While 2021 may be looking for the industry, 2020 was a nightmare for gyms and physical fitness. States began closing health clubs in mid-March. As of April 6, 48 out of 50 states had forced gyms to close. During that time, physical activity in the United States fell by 48%, according to Evidation, a platform that analyzes health data.

When some lockdown orders and business restrictions were lifted in May, the gyms were reopened mainly in the south and west. This was part of a regional trend that predicted the second wave of summer infections. As that surge subsided, more fitness facility closings were lifted in other regions, including states like New Jersey, New York, and Michigan.

But the damage was already done. The International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) fitness lobby group estimated that as of September 30, 15% of gyms were permanently closed. The industry was also reported to have lost more than $ 15 billion in sales and 480,000 jobs. Several major brands have filed for bankruptcy since the pandemic began. Gold’s Gym, 24-Hour Fitness, and Town Sports International (including New York Sports Clubs) have all filed for Chapter 11 restructuring. In the meantime, Flywheel registered Chapter 7 and closed all studios.

Chris Rondeau, CEO of the fitness chain Planet Fitness, said that facility training averages about 70% year-on-year, compared to 30% when it reopened in May.

At the start of the pandemic, the company rolled up digital content on its app and launched a digital subscription for $ 5.99 in November.

“One of the legacies of the pandemic is that people can now reconcile different things at home. When the pandemic wears off, digital options are a substitute they are familiar with when they don’t have time to get to the gym, ”he said. “It’s rooted in habits now.”

Most virtual workouts can be done using a cell phone, iPad, or laptop. It’s just as easy to put a device on a coffee table and join in in your living room. Some are already recorded and allow you to pause or rewind. Others are streamed live, mimicking the experience of training with a group.

Planet Fitness has partnered with the interactive fitness platform iFit to develop more premium workout content. The subscription is open to everyone and does not require a personal Planet Fitness gym membership. In fact, around 20% of app owners aren’t members, Rondeau said.

Although 2,100 of the 2,800 physical locations are now open, the company scaled back its marketing efforts significantly in 2020. “It’s not so much a cancellation problem, it’s a joining problem as we haven’t increased sales,” said Rondeau. This year there is still an open question.

“The first four months of the year are always very important to us,” he said. “We saw people excited to return, but we still have to fight our way back.”

At Equinox, the chain responded to the March lockdown by launching Variis, a streaming app that offers on-demand fitness content. The aim is to recreate the personal experience of the most popular fitness brands like SoulCycle (owned by Equinox), Precision Run, and Pure Yoga.

With the exception of cycling, most courses on Variis require minimal equipment, from free weights to a yoga mat. Equinox sells its SoulCycle-branded home bike for $ 2,500. With this purchase, users also get access to the entire Variis platform that would otherwise cost $ 40 per month. Equinox members get free access with a personal gym membership.

According to LaRose, members who use the app exercise almost 20% more per month compared to last year. This is a sign that virtual workouts are a sizeable part of the routine even after some gyms open their doors. Whether people have an hour or just 10 minutes between Zoom meetings, many practice multiple virtual workouts each day using a range of modalities, including running, circuit training, or Pilates, he said.

The pandemic has also increased the importance of cardiovascular health. Obesity can triple the risk of hospitalization due to COVID-19, decrease lung capacity, and impair immune function at the same time. “People have a head start in strengthening their overall health thanks to virtual workouts,” said McCarter. “It also breaks up the ‘fitness shyness’ that keeps some people from going to the gym in person.”

While major health clubs like Equinox and Planet Fitness haven’t increased membership prices, the cost per personal class in boutique gyms increased an average of 20%, according to McCarter. This was due to the capacity and operating cost restrictions associated with the pandemic. However, virtual class prices fell by about 20%.

“The future is a mix of digital and physical. Despite the fact that some of the store fronts are shrinking, consumer demand is booming as people seek a balance between mental and physical health, ”LaRose said. “The stakes are higher now.”