Health System

The Pandemic Forced Big Changes in the Philly Fitness Industry

Longform

Mandatory shutdowns. Ever-changing city restrictions. Peloton. Despite it all, Philly’s fitness industry managed to survive. But will it ever be the same?


philly fitness industry

Where will the Philly fitness industry go from here? Illustration by Meredith Miotke

On March 13th, I walked into Revel Ride with my spin shoes, my mask, and what felt like first-date jitters. Sure, I had Zoomed Revel’s classes during lockdown and worn silent-disco headphones while spinning outside during its South Street pop-up last summer, but exercising indoors for the first time in a year hit differently. There was excitement, but it was tempered with anxiety over all the heavy breathing that would surround me in an enclosed space.

There are only 10 of us, I reminded myself. Most of us are vaccinated. I got my temperature checked and entered the spin room, illuminated with its signature blue lights.

As I clipped into my bike, I looked around the socially distanced room, saw my eager workout companions, and felt my nervousness fall away. When the music started — one of my favorites, by Mumford & Sons — I screamed my first “WOO!” of class. For the next 45 minutes, I felt more powerful and capable than I had in months.

In the Before Times, sweating at your go-to boutique fitness studio wasn’t just about the exercise — it was an experience you posted about on social media. Once characterized by big-box gym chains, the fitness industry over the past decade became dominated by swanky studios that not only got you sweating, but made you feel like a superstar when you said you worked out there. Between 2013 and 2017, gym memberships in America increased by 15 percent, while boutique studio memberships skyrocketed by 121 percent, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association.

The craze infiltrated Philly with the opening of studios that were independently owned and had a stronger neighborhood feel. From 2013 to 2018, the number of fitness boutiques in Center City rose from 16 to 36, according to the Inquirer. By the start of 2020, there were 74.

Then COVID-19 hit, and the seemingly here-to-stay boutique fitness frenzy got jilted. The challenging year — marked by business closures, on-and-off-again operations, furloughed coaches, and the rise of at-home workouts — threatened to kill the industry for good. Now that Philly is returning to “normal,” our fitness scene is getting back on its feet, with indoor group classes and private trainings in session again. But will the boutique fitness scene ever return to its pre-pandemic dominance — and is it really such a bad thing if it’s forever changed?

Wherever our fitness scene is headed, one thing is for sure: It’s far from dead.

When the City of Philadelphia ordered all nonessential businesses to shut down by 5 p.m. on March 16th last year, fitness studios found themselves in unfamiliar, distressing territory. Owners scrambled to pivot to alternative business models — including virtual classes and renting out or selling their equipment to clients. And yet all that hustle wasn’t enough to save some of them: More than a quarter of the studios in the Center City business district have shuttered — most of them for good.

The shutdowns affected instructors as well as owners: Many trainers were left to fend for themselves when they were furloughed or their gyms closed. Shannon Brennan, a former boxing coach at Rumble, spent the pandemic building her ­personal-training business — and she doesn’t plan on returning to teaching boutique fitness.

“It was crushing to get laid off last April, but the pandemic gave me the opportunity to take a step back from studio life, which can be exhausting, and to create my own business,” Brennan says. “I worked so hard to give myself and my clients security for a year. Going back to [teaching] classes when gyms started to open would’ve meant dropping clients who were there for me when the studio and indoor classes weren’t.”

Brennan is just one of a host of fit pros who have had to adapt to the constant instability of the past year. When the city moved into the yellow phase in June of 2020, many businesses were allowed to reopen, to attempt to recoup some of their lost profits — but gyms of all sizes were forced to remain closed. This propelled the creation of the PA Independent Training Facility Coalition. The group — spearheaded by Warhorse Barbell Club and composed of studios such as BPM Fitness, Subversus Fitness, CrossFit Novem and The Wall Fitness — petitioned Governor Tom Wolf to allow small personal-training gyms and boutique fitness studios to be classified separately from big-box gyms. Though their efforts were unsuccessful, the attempt catalyzed a kind of unified front among the often-siloed fitness studios.

Another blow came with the second pandemic shutdown in November, when the city, which had allowed gyms to reopen mid-July, banned indoor exercise classes through January 1, 2021. In response, more than 30 studios joined forces to create the Philly Fitness Coalition, which petitioned local government and health officials to declare fitness studios essential businesses, to allow them to operate under agreed-upon health safety measures, and to “provide funds for our failing industry like they did for banks and airlines.”

Some relief finally arrived two months later when the city initiated the Philadelphia COVID-19 Restaurant and Gym Relief Program, which granted up to $15,000 apiece to independently owned, for-­profit food and fitness businesses that were adversely affected by the November shutdown. Some 900-plus businesses received grants, with more than half going to those that are minority-owned.

While the program was a step in the right direction, it was also too little, too late. “The money BPM received was enough of a chunk of change to be helpful with a month of expenses,” says BPM Fitness owner Shoshana Katz. “Unfortunately, it came at a time when so many businesses had already shut their doors, and while I’m not saying that this grant alone would have saved a business, I do believe some businesses would have been able to stay afloat if there had been grants available earlier on, like there were for other industries.”

While city ordinances required studios to remain shut down for months on end, virtual classes hosted on Zoom or Instagram Live gave fitness studios the opportunity to retain some income. These classes also provided something of a lifeline for clients stuck at home, who enthusiastically latched on to their studios’ new streaming schedules.

Trainer Lauren Leavell, who shifted to virtual classes last March, says livestreaming encouraged folks who never felt welcome or capable in person to try classes. “Some of them moved to in-person when that became available because they felt more confident,” she says. “Others have continued loving the flexibility and privacy of online.”

Rittenhouse-based Unite Fitness also launched its own digital program, complete with both livestreamed and on-demand classes. On the first day alone, there were upwards of 325 participants, according to Unite’s Gavin McKay.

But then the weather got nice, people were itching to get outside, and Zoom fatigue set in. Plus, your living room lacks the dramatic lighting, pounding music, fellow sweaters, and high-end amenities found in boutique studios. While virtual classes were a boon for clients in the early months of the pandemic, that interest faded with time, says Joanna Da-Sylva, owner of Teranga Yoga in Bella Vista.

“We had a few members who were there practically every session, but overall, the numbers dropped,” Da-Sylva says. “I think people grew tired of being on the computer.” Also apparent? How hard it is to re-create a music-driven hot yoga session through a computer screen.

McKay says Unite’s livestream engagement also dropped, with 300 regulars dwindling to 100. He believes the in-person (and safely socially distanced) classes Unite offered at the 23rd Street Armory were partly responsible. But he also attributes the limit of digital growth to major streaming companies like Peloton, whose global membership hit 3.1 million at the end of last June and whose 2020 revenue was $1.8 billion — both almost doubling from 2019. Over the past year, Philly studios weren’t just competing with the spin class down the street — they were suddenly competing with every streaming workout anywhere, including those produced by companies that have built their entire business models around producing high-quality digital experiences.

“We stopped trying to market our live and on-demand product because it was so challenging to acquire customers who don’t know your brand when competing with companies who have hundreds of millions of dollars at their disposal,” McKay says.

For South Jersey resident Emily Tharp, Peloton offered an intense workout after she moved out of Rittenhouse, where she’d had a plethora of studios right outside her door. Though she initially went the local route, renting a stationary bike from Revel Ride for the first five months of the pandemic, she switched to Peloton last December. “Many of my girlfriends and co-workers purchased Peloton bikes during the pandemic,” she says. “We try and plan classes together, which sort of replicates the feeling of community. It has helped me keep my spirits up and my body feeling good over the past year.”

But while local studios may have a hard time competing with streaming giants like Peloton, Tharp says for her, streaming still can’t compete with in-person fitness — “There’s nothing like the real thing.” She’s started incorporating indoor classes into her schedule now that she’s traveling into the city again for work.

“In person, there’s an energy and a motivation you get from other people pushing themselves next to you that you don’t get at home,” says Kelsey Lauder.

Some local studios — such as Teranga — have already cut ties with the virtual world entirely, which McKay predicts will become the norm for local boutiques as long as we aren’t faced with another lockdown. As Fishtown resident and fitness enthusiast Jordan Price puts it, “While many have found themselves a nice little routine at home, the desire to get back to the energy of the studio, the encouragement and motivation from the trainers, and the vibe you get from being surrounded by fitness friends has people jonesing for in-person connection.”

Kelsey Lauder, a Point Breeze resident and SoulCycle devotee, says she’s been to a few in-person classes while still joining virtual rides at home with the company’s bike. “It’s harder for me to get to class,” she says. “But at home, I catch myself taking more breaks, checking the time, and not giving 100 percent. In person, there’s an energy and a motivation you get from other people pushing themselves next to you that you don’t get at home.”

While many may have adapted to their at-home routines — especially after investing in their own equipment — there’s still a draw to in-person workouts. “The allure of returning to old habits, of reclaiming normalcy and reconnecting with the social aspects of working out, has its strong appeal,” investment analyst Landon Luxembourg told the Washington Post in January. As it turns out, that impossible-to-­re-create-at-home aspect of workout classes may be the very thing that helps them survive: You simply can’t DIY a hot Pilates class or a nightclub ambience at home. (Trust me, I’ve tried.)

While the pandemic may be (mostly) in the rearview mirror locally, some effects of the past year are likely to leave their mark on our fitness scene. One lingering trend may be an uptick in outdoor workouts. Philly has always had a strong outdoor workout scene during the warmer months, but the pandemic sent all kinds of studios seeking the open air. Chestnut Hill Cycle Fitness and SoulCycle Ardmore hosted ­parking-lot spin sessions, Strength Haüs Fitness launched outdoor kettlebell classes, Practice in the Park rolled out its yoga mats in local green spaces, and boxing coach Maleek Jackson built a covered training turf in front of his Northern Liberties gym this past winter that’s still going strong.

While studio owners likely won’t opt for parking-lot sessions again, many plan to continue utilizing open-air spaces to give clients a change of scenery. Melissa Green Henkin, co-founder of OMM Yoga, says that while there’s more competition now that studios have resumed indoor operations, she’ll keep hosting outdoor classes; being surrounded by nature, she says, creates a “very grounding experience” that’s ideal for yoga.

But 2020 also required studios to ­consider how they were serving their ­clients — and whom, exactly, they were seeking to serve. The fitness industry has long catered to white, thin, able-bodied, cisgender women — and done too little to create inclusive spaces that serve all bodies. Last year’s protests against ongoing racial injustice prompted many industries to reconsider their lip service to diversity, equity and inclusion — and fitness was no exception. Local instructors such as Adriana Adelé, Lauren Leavell, Nonnormative Body Club’s Asher Freeman, EveryBody Movement & Wellness’s Julia Naftulin, and Festive Fitness & Wellness’s Mike Watkins are leading the way in creating inclusive wellness spaces, but there’s still much work to be done in Philly’s fitness scene overall.

Brennan feels that cultivating inclusive spaces is one way studios can thrive now. “What may feel inclusive to me may not feel inclusive to someone else. But I believe that studios have to show they support and celebrate people of all races, genders, religions and body sizes,” she says. “I have seen more community classes and ­donation-focused classes, but that’s really just the start. A studio has to show that any person of any background or size can feel welcome when they walk through its doors. That’s more than the class itself — it comes down to employees, atmosphere, pricing and marketing.”

Prior to the pandemic, the fitness industry had begun shifting toward a more holistic view of wellness — taking mental and emotional health into account along with the physical. Then came the high stress and racial trauma of 2020, which made caring for the whole person, not just the body, a necessity.

In June of 2020, in the wake of the George Floyd protests, Adriana Adelé hosted her first Breathe + Rest virtual restorative yoga class with the intention to “offer Black people some refuge, rest, and space to breathe.” After the inaugural 90-minute practice, folks were clamoring for a follow-up, so she transformed Breathe + Rest into a weekly series, using the platform to also raise funds for different Black-led or ­-centered organizations.

“In class, we center slowing down, connecting with the inner divinity of self, making and taking space, feeling supported, receiving rest, and releasing what no longer serves us — actions that all push back against toxic dominant societal systems and are steps toward collective liberation,” says Adelé, who has expanded the program into outdoor in-person events as well as a weekend retreat in the Allegheny Mountains.

“Our bodies just got us through this past year, and we shouldn’t be perpetuating the idea that we need to punish ourselves for anything,” says Katie Graham.

Katie Graham, owner of RIDE Spin, Barre and TRX in Southampton, says fitness professionals have an even greater responsibility now to encourage clients to take the time to rest. “We just came out of a crazy year, and our bodies have been through so much — our stress hormone, cortisol, was probably at an all-time high,” she says. “Folks are still being really hard on themselves and want to push, push, push to get ‘back’ to where they were pre-COVID, so we instructors have to be mindful with the language we’re using during and after class to make sure we’re not encouraging clients to overdo it. Our bodies just got us through this past year, and we shouldn’t be perpetuating the idea that we need to punish ourselves for anything.”

Clients’ needs have also changed — they’re burned out, Zoom-fatigued and exhausted. The answer? Shorter classes. The Wall Fitness owner Juliet Sabella says her Manayunk studio has been running 30- and 40-minute classes and will continue doing so. Jessica Benhaim, owner of Lumos Yoga & Barre, says the Spring Garden studio used to run express barre classes only on weekday mornings and at lunch. Due to the pandemic, she cut nearly every class to 45 minutes. “While creating express classes was done more out of business capacity and safety requirements, I have not had any complaints from clients or had any requests to bring back longer versions of classes,” she notes.

If there’s one thing the Philly fitness industry learned this past year, it’s that there’s strength in numbers — and not just how many clients are passing through the doors. Many studio owners have embraced the notion of “collaboration over competition” to help one another survive. In June, the Philly Fitness Coalition hosted its grand return to in-studio workouts with the inaugural Philly Fitness Week, a 10-day citywide workout series that offered discounted classes and packages. McKay, who helped organize the event, says the main goal was to lure people back to their exercise routines, jump-starting the fitness industry.

Despite this promotion, attendance in studios still isn’t where it was pre-pandemic. Ryan Lewis, a master instructor for SoulCycle, has observed that riders are striking a balance between their at-home pandemic solutions (especially those who invested in stationary bikes) and in-studio classes.

“I think we’re starting to see the scales tip toward attending classes in a studio vs. at home,” he says. “I’m hearing more and more often about the dust that is collecting on at-home equipment, but there’s also a segment of the population that simply will not go to a studio at this time, and that’s beyond anyone’s control.”

As the industry creeps back toward stability, McKay says, a “We’re all in this together” approach among studio owners is key to success.

“Fitness studios are typically disparate, but coming together was the only way we could try to enact change and continue providing comprehensive, stress-relieving fitness,” he says. “We need to stop seeing each other as competition and start supporting one another in big and small ways. I want to see us mature as an industry so we can better serve the community in more inclusive ways. I hope this is a trend that stays for good.”

Published as “Philly Gyms Won’t Go Down Without a Fight” in the September 2021 issue of Philadelphia magazine.