Navigating Business, Fitness, and Health during the Uncertainty of COVID-19

Andy Gerth
One less chair at the Thanksgiving table. A cancelled prom and graduation ceremony. A full academic year spent online and physically isolated. The COVID pandemic has touched the lives of everyone across the world in one way or another.
An industry hit especially hard by restrictions and a need for social distancing has been the fitness and gym industry. Close-together training sessions coinciding with sweaty and shared equipment made the potential for virus transmission high. According to RunRepeat, it’s estimated that $13.9 billion was lost from mid-March to August 31 of 2020 because of gym closures. In addition, 58% of personal trainers lost some or all their income and 60% of Americans planned on cancelling their memberships as money gets tight.
However, through the times of profound anxiety, enormous uncertainty, and overwhelming frustration, there are many that used the once-in-a-century challenge to really do self-reflection and work on bettering oneself. For some, the best moments in life come when you least expect it.
Ryan Woodburn has been working as an employee of the gym industry since 2012. In 2020, just as COVID-19 began the general manager position at 517 Fitness on Weinbach Ave. in Evansville, Indiana. “I wanted to take everything I learned and know and try to make things better. That’s what we all try to do.” 517 is a smaller gym right off the 66 Expressway across from Turoni’s. If you blink twice, you might miss it. But once you take your first step inside, it’s an inviting environment.
One might think that taking over a business during COVID-19 is probably one of the worst tasks one could be given. Not only is there the standard learning curve in a new position but add on top of that the pandemic. Ryan’s had management experience before, but nothing of this nature. “I took over in 2020… which was pretty interesting. The owners don’t live here locally, so I do pretty much everything – managing the money, fixing equipment, and I do training as well.” While managers and entrepreneurs struggle enough with a work-life balance, the situation was amplified in Ryan’s case.
Interesting was a great way to put it. 20 years from now, when COVID will feel like a faint memory and just a story that’ll be passed on for generations, there will be case studies and probably even history course units done on the pandemic and how it affected x, y, and z. In Ryan’s case, it’ll be becoming a first-time business manager. A lot of businesses had to shut their doors, lay off employees, and deal with unforeseen supply chain problems. But, in an era where health is really at the forefront of everyone’s mind, Ryan wasn’t prepared to flip the ‘open’ sign at 517 to ‘closed’.
517 Fitness and gyms across the country had to adapt to the new restrictions and experiment with best way possible to keep doors open and revenue flowing in the best they can. Many personal trainers moved to virtual sessions, which allowed for their appointments to continue going forward, but it’s obviously not a perfect replacement for meeting in person and at a facility. This is the same across several industries such as healthcare. Telehealth patient visits skyrocketed in 2020, but many doctors still feel it is not a replacement for in person visits. To make up for it, 517 increased distance in-between equipment, made PPE readily available, and limited hours. That way, the gym could stay open and still be an option for members who have paid for their monthly membership. At the same time, a phenomenon was growing on social media and among the youth.
Business opportunities change the most when public attitudes and trends change. When the public is obsessing over coffee trends and making a post on social media about the drink they rushed to pick up before work, Starbucks and Dunkin’ will see their business and revenue soar. That’s what’s happening to gyms today. If you listen into a conversation of college students today, you’re likely to hear the words, “When we going to the gym?” “What are you hitting today?” “I’m on a cut.” A positive ‘obsession’ over going to the gym and working out is really taking off.
Soren Vagenius is a college student at Indiana University. Like many of his peers, the gym and taking care of his health has become a priority, and it all started as a result of COVID. He was forced to develop an at-home work out plan in March 2020 when his local YMCA closed down in-person operations. That translated into taking care of his diet, which many doctors consider to be 80% of the weight loss process. Overall good health habits is the best prescription in his view during a time when everyone around you is seemingly getting sick or having to isolate. “I started during Covid because it was a time when mental health was at its lowest.” That’s where a dedication to healthy habits gave him an extra layer of protection. “I think my best protection against all the COVID variants, and any illness, is being healthy, eating right, and having good habits.”
In the end, Ryan took the unprecedented two opportunities and challenges in front of him – managing a business for the first time and the first global pandemic in over a century – to grow and expand his business to a level it hasn’t been before. “We have more members now that we ever had,” he said.