6 ways to rekindle gym habits

Getting people back into the gyms will require more than a few hygiene measures


Download our Gyms report – “Back on the Treadmill” here:

Pre-COVID, gyms and fitness were in great health

Pre-pandemic, the UK health and fitness industry was healthier than it had ever been. It has more gyms, more members and a greater market value than ever before.  More than 7,000 fitness facilities across the industry with 10+ million members or more than one in seven of the population had created an industry worth £5+ billion.

COVID lockdown offered the chance to reset

Lockdown shut the gym industry down totally and had wildly differing effects on different parts of the population. Some were doing more exercise than before; some were just as active (or inactive) as before; and some ended up doing much less exercise than normal. For exercisers, the key challenge of this phase was how to adapt their regimes to the new regulations. This was the time of home workouts led by Joe Wicks, AKA “the nation’s PE teacher”, a time of rocketing bike sales, of making use of our 1 our per day to explore our local areas. Peleton gained both sales and members as revenue surged 172% on last year with locked down consumers investing heavily in home fitness solutions.

Summer brought a return, but not to “normal”

With restrictions easing from the end of July many were then faced with the dilemma of whether to return: to work, to school, and to their old exercise habits, including gyms.  To encourage this most gyms implemented robust programmes of hygiene and distancing measures and comms programmes to communicate their readiness for a return. It was, at best, a very partial return but in truth, gyms failed to fully step up (pun intended!) their game. What they were doing was trying to allay fears rather than being innovative and creative about how to deal with the situation to create new exercise habits.

For many, wariness trumped appeal: they were just too scared to come back or simply had more to think about than hitting the treadmills. More worryingly for gyms, others had adapted to a whole new routine and it is this group that gyms really have to worry about: they may no longer see the gym as THE place to exercise.

Looking to the longer-term: How to get the nation back on the treadmills

Getting people back into gyms in large numbers won’t be easy. Gyms will need to provide reassurances both emotional and practical: unless customers feel the gym is safe (as safe as home or the park) there will still be wariness.

Work the tradeoffs: accepting that being in any confined indoor space poses risks you need customers to weigh the (hopefully) slight added risks of gym going against the benefits of doing so: What does the gym offer that they cannot get anywhere else? How is the gym demonstrably better than any home-based or outside-world workout?

Leverage behaviour theory: gym-going was a habit. Now it is not. It can be again, but only by leveraging habit theory of the kind used by smoking cessation and weight loss programmes.

Lastly, be realistic: if you are aiming to return to “before” you are setting yourself up for disappointment. Accept that the new reality might involve a blend of gym and non-gym activity and see how you can win in both spaces. Here are six things to think about:

  1. As safe as home: Indoor spaces like gyms (and theatres, nightclubs, cinemas) have been identified as likely spaces for transmission, with gyms arguably worst affected because customers are breathing fast, sweaty and tired. Gyms should be in constant conversation with solution innovators and be prepared to act fast to secure exclusive access to any emerging hygiene solution that might give them a competitive edge.
  • Nothing beats the gym for sociability: Home workouts, even if conducted in a social setting (like Houseparty) are nothing like an intense or fun communal gym class. Comms should stress the benefits of group exercise: sociability, networking, fun, competition, etc and gyms should increase group work, socialise solo work and gamify workouts.
  • Nothing beats the gym for equipment & expertise: While many have invested in home exercise equipment, it will be nowhere near the standard of what gyms have available. Encourage your customers to treat their home workout as a warmup for the real event – a proper gym session. Gyms must invest in the newest kit, push that kit to its limits and encourage staff to add value.
  • Breaking and recreating habits: It can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days for a person to form a new habit and an average of 66 days for a new behaviour to become automatic (link). The old gym habit is no more. Now it is a no-gym habit so providers need to be prepared to start from scratch.
  • Don’t let the good work slide: Some have found lockdown has given them the gift of time: no more commuting, shorter workdays and time with family. Some have used this as a chance for new habits to form: those who took up couch to 5K, those who used their old “commute time” to do more exercise than before. Gyms can capitalise on the natural fears of these new fitness converts that they will relapse.
  • Embrace hybrid (gym) lifestyles: In the same as WFH is likely to continue as part of a hybrid lifestyle going will likely evolve into a hybrid gym/home/third space model and gyms need to demonstrate to customers how they can be part of that mix.

Gyms are faced with a customer base that is reassessing their life: do they even want to return to “normal”. Gyms must surely double-down on their core benefits: social interaction and expertise in the field of exercise (in the form of both staff and equipment).

This article was written by Nick Chiarelli, Head of Trends at UNLIMITED.


Download our Gyms report – “Back on the Treadmill” here: