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Outdoor workouts in January? COVID-19 restrictions force gyms to get creative during New Year’s resolution season

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People work out during a Studio Three outdoor class, held in a Fifth Third Bank parking lot and drive-thru on Jan. 13, 2021, in Chicago. The studio built an outdoor workout area so it could continue holding classes under COVID-19 restrictions. (Erin Hooley/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Lauren Zumbach
Chicago Tribune

As temperatures hovered above freezing in Chicago Wednesday morning, nine people gathered in front of infrared heaters at the loading dock at Edge Athlete Lounge, in the West Town area, for a full-body strength routine that finished just before sunrise.

Others followed a livestreamed version from home. But Cary Black, 41, a longtime Edge member training for two 100-kilometer ultramarathons, said he prefers being with the group and getting face-to-face instruction — as long as it’s above 10 degrees.

“I feel like I go a little harder,” he said. “I get a better start to the day.”

New Year’s resolutions to get healthy usually bring crowds to workout classes, and gyms count on the annual influx of new members. This year, restrictions meant to slow the spread of COVID-19 and some consumers’ wariness of working out indoors with others are forcing both fitness studios and customers to pivot. Gyms have already introduced virtual classes and adapted studios for socially distanced workouts. Now, some are extending outdoor classes expected to be a seasonal offering well into winter.

Online training was named the top fitness trend of 2021, according to the American College of Sports Medicine, and consumers have more options than ever, from home workout specialists like Peloton to new virtual classes and memberships at major club chains and small boutique studios alike. Some broadcast instructor-led workouts inside their studios so members can follow along.

But not everyone is on board with the virtual workouts, prompting gym-goers instead to brave the cold for far longer than many gyms expected.

“I tried doing it on Zoom, and I’d rather sit on the couch,” said Kim Blackburn, 41, who participated in the Wednesday morning class at Edge. As a runner, she said she doesn’t mind the cold.

Edge co-owner Robyn LaLonde had hoped the gym would be able to bring classes indoors by winter. But some members are still more comfortable taking classes in the open air, and after tightened COVID-19 restrictions made socially distanced indoor classes off-limits, people kept signing up.

“There are times we are checking people in and we don’t know who the athlete is because they’re so bundled up,” LaLonde said. “That’s the athlete we appeal to. They like to show up for themselves and each other.”

Edge, which also lets members reserve equipment for independent use, is the busiest it’s been since June, LaLonde said. It’s not just the New Year’s resolution crowd: the distance runners and triathletes who come to Edge seem hopeful the vaccine rollout means they will be able to get back to racing this year. Still, the gym is only getting about a quarter of the visits it typically would.

Studio Three, which usually offers group interval training, cycling and yoga classes at two locations in Chicago, also found members wanted to keep outdoor classes going into the winter.

On Wednesday afternoon, an instructor led a group of about 25 people through a cardio and strength circuit in the unused lanes of a bank drive-through covered by artificial turf next to Studio Three’s site in the Lincoln Park neighborhood.

People can reserve time to work out on their own or take a virtual class in studios, but Studio Three is usually “not even close” to reaching the maximum allowed capacity, said CEO David Blitz.

Riley Wypiszenski, 26, said she preferred outdoor classes to working out on her own in the studio.

“I’m saving my credits for the full-blown experience,” she said. “It’s so much more motivational with an instructor.”

Studio Three had been holding outdoor classes at a larger open-air space near its location in River North but stopped in December because it’s less sheltered than the Lincoln Park site. The company plans to restart classes after installing a tent and heaters in March. In Lincoln Park, classes are held as weather permits — generally when it’s 25 degrees or warmer and not unbearably windy.

While outdoor classes have benefited from relatively mild temperatures, that may not last all winter, and not every studio can adapt their classes to the outdoors.

Shred415, a Chicago-based chain of studios that offers treadmill and strength training interval workouts, holds a 10-person outdoor class every Saturday in Lincoln Park, where it has a suitable space and enough demand from members. The class reliably fills, though it’s generally canceled when temperatures drop below freezing, said regional manager Jen Wilkins.

Other locations, including seven in the Chicago area, let people reserve time in studios where they can follow a virtual instructor-led class. Attendance is down by roughly half and studios that typically get 100 or more new clients at the start of the year are now seeing roughly a quarter of that.

“We know more will be ready to come back when the instructor is there motivating them and there’s a little more of the normalcy they’re used to,” Wilkins said.

Some fitness clubs and studios are lobbying leaders to loosen restrictions on indoor classes, saying precautions like limiting capacity, mask-wearing and extra cleaning have been effective at preventing transmission during workouts.

The timing is especially tough for studios that rely on group classes, since people won’t buy memberships for classes on an indefinite pause, said Abby Phelps, who owns three Chicago Club Pilates studios in Chicago.

“It’s like banning retail from Black Friday to Christmas,” she said.

Data from payment processing firms indicated 15% of U.S. gyms and fitness clubs closed permanently as of Sept. 30, and more were at risk of closing by the end of the year, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association.

Phelps is confident her studios will survive the pandemic, but half her 50-person staff is on furlough. She’s holding virtual classes and is getting more personal training clients, but revenues are down about 80%, she said.

Gyms and health clubs were less likely to be named as potential sources of COVID-19 exposure than restaurants or bars, grocery stores and offices, according to contact tracing data from the Illinois Department of Public Health, which warned that data may not be complete. Health departments are still building up contact tracing efforts and people with COVID-19 may not accurately report everywhere they visited in the period they could have been exposed.

A handful of gyms said they were not aware of any instances where COVID-19 was believed to have spread through their facilities.

While some are eager to get back to the gym, other consumers are investing in gear to work out at home or outdoors — assuming they can find it in stock.

Basic equipment like dumbbells and kettlebells have been tough to track down since early in the pandemic, and at Rosemont-based equipment maker Life Fitness, two dumbbell styles were out of stock, while the rest take six or seven weeks to deliver.

The company said it expects the shortage to end soon. Life Fitness also started shipping straight to customers’ homes some equipment the company would usually deliver and assemble. That means people get items quicker, as long as they’re able to put them together themselves, said Leigh Wierichs, manager of global training and education.

While accessories like free weights are still in demand, Life Fitness saw more people making bigger investments to outfit home gyms as the pandemic dragged on, Wierichs said. Treadmills, indoor bikes and a rowing machine have been popular, and the company recently introduced a squat rack designed to be as compact as possible for use at home.

Peloton, too, is still struggling to keep up with demand for its line of virtually-connected fitness equipment. New bike orders can take eight to ten weeks to arrive, according to the company’s website. Last month, Peloton announced it bought fitness equipment maker Precor for $420 million to boost its manufacturing capacity.

Despite the delays, people are still buying: quarterly revenues were up more than 200% compared with the same period last year, the company said in November.

Even with restrictions in place, several gyms said they have seen an uptick in new members around the new year, if far fewer than normal.

Life Time, which normally sells twice as many memberships in January as it would in a typical month, planned to cap new membership sales if gyms were at risk of running into capacity limits after it saw sign-ups increasing in the fall, but so far space hasn’t been an issue, said spokeswoman Amy Williams.

Life Time is still offering its usual January promotions and made its digital app, including virtual workout classes, free throughout the month of January.

The New Year’s deal hooked Shana Sissel, 42, who was sick of trying to work out at home with nothing but resistance bands, a stability ball and single 15-pound kettlebell. She liked that Life Time had activities for her 5-year-old son, who attends school remotely.

The club was busier than Sissel expected, but people wore masks and kept their distance, so she felt comfortable.

“It’s expensive, but at this point it’s well worth its weight in gold for being able to solve at least a little bit of the issue I’m facing,” she said.

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