LIMA — Mobile fitness and nutrition apps. Zoom sessions with personal trainers. When fitness centers were forced to shut down last spring, frequent gym members turned to home exercise equipment and online workouts to stay fit.
But even though the pandemic has accelerated the virtual fitness movement — compelling brick and mortar fitness centers to upgrade their digital offerings for members who weren’t ready to return to the gym — owners say the desire for human connection has already brought many members back, and highlighted the sense of community created by fitness clubs and senior centers in the first place.
“They still crave that connection,” said Alexa Miller, franchise owner of the Anytime Fitness club on Elida Road. “They want to be around people, so how can we make that a safe place for them to come, following all the protocols but still offering those high-top services for people.”
The club already offered members access to digital workouts and nutrition advice through its mobile app, which grew in popularity while the gym was closed during Ohio’s stay-at-home order and quickly became a lifeline for Miller. Now, she could point to a service that was still available even though the club was temporarily closed.
Miller expanded the club’s online services with new Zoom fitness classes and one-on-one personal training sessions. And soon, personal trainers were traveling to members’ homes and workplaces for on-site group fitness classes.
As Miller describes it, her team was “working smarter, not harder” to stay connected with members in the new era of social distancing.
A place for community
The digital services were flexible and convenient, giving members who were uncomfortable returning to the gym last summer an option to stay fit from home. And that flexibility gives members who are traveling or unable to find childcare a new option that will likely outlast the pandemic.
But for fitness clubs like the Senior Citizens Services center, which hosts Bible studies and card games in addition to its wellness classes, members often expect more than just a workout.
The club’s members were so distraught by Ohio’s stay-at-home order that many called the Ohio Department of Health to petition for a reopening, Senior Citizens Services Director Betsy Winget said.
“They missed the physical workouts that they could get here,” Winget said. “But for our seniors — and for everybody of any age — the isolation and the change of routine, being more homebound, has profoundly affected everybody.”
Now, Lima YMCA CEO Jared Lehman sees a lot of pent-up demand for those social interactions.
“What I’m learning is that we are truly a social destination for a lot of people,” Lehman said. “We are a place where they come to feel part of a community; a sense of belonging.”
Lehman encouraged his staff to call Y members last spring, hoping to offer a sense of normalcy through conversation. Those calls were a reminder that even though the Y was hosting some of its classes virtually, people still craved relationships.
Now, Lehman wants to build new programs centered around connection and community to help people feel less isolated.
Fighting to survive
When Miller was finally allowed to reopen her Anytime Fitness club last summer, she noticed a lot of new members were signing up, while old members who visited infrequently were working out more often. It all led her to believe that the pandemic was a wake-up call for people to take more control over their health amid an ongoing public health crisis. And now, Miller had evidence that her business would survive.
“It made me smile, because as a business owner the pandemic’s a scary time,” she said. “You don’t know what’s going to happen. You don’t know if they’re going to be shut down. You don’t know how your members are going to respond, or how the community’s going to respond when you open back up.”