Top fitness executives are fighting to keep gyms open amid coronavirus

  • As of Thursday, four states — including Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington — re-issued state-mandated shutdowns requiring gyms to temporarily close to halt the spread of the virus.
  • In conversations with Business Insider, the chief executives of Life Time Fitness, Self Esteem Brands, and Retro Fitness make their case for leaving fitness centers open and explain why they believe closing them is a threat to public health. 
  • “If you look at a macro level, what’s frustrating to us is this country has a health problem and it’s not just COVID,” said Self Esteem Brands Chuck Runyon. “There is no better time for health officials around the country to remind people to take control of our health.”
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While the pandemic has put a damper on Thanksgiving plans for many Americans, rising coronavirus cases are also hindering traditional pre-feast fitness routines like annual turkey trot races and family gym outings. 

As of Thursday, four states — including Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington — re-issued state-mandated shutdowns requiring gyms to temporarily shutter to halt the spread of the virus. And while gyms in most states remain open for now, officials in regions like New York are enforcing earlier closing times and stricter capacity limits for fitness centers. 

The closures are sparking outcry and exacerbating existing feuds between gym owners and state officials regarding what types of businesses are permitted to remain open and determined essential. 

In conversations with Business Insider, the chief executives of Life Time Fitness, Self Esteem Brands, and Retro Fitness made their case for leaving fitness centers open and explain why they feel closing is a threat to public health. Here’s what they had to say. 

Gym owners push lawmakers for essential status 

Compounding the struggle for gym owners and consumers alike is a lack of conclusive data regarding exposure and infection rates at gyms, leaving many experts and policymakers at odds over the best course of action.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintains that “indoor spaces are more risky than outdoor spaces” and several reports found fitness centers — including a spin studio in Ontario, Canada and an indoor ice rink in Massachusetts — tied to several coronavirus outbreaks. Further, a recent analysis by Northwestern University found that gyms were among superspreader venues early in the virus, based on cellphone mobility data. 

Still, other studies — including a September report from the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association — are reporting contrary findings that show low risk of infection at gyms. While IHRSA reported infection rates as low as .0023% across 2,873 fitness centers, The Washington Post reported that concerns have arisen over the methodology of the survey and conflicts of interest in its development. 

Regardless, gym owners are fighting tooth and nail to keep their facilities open, using any helpful data point to their advantage. 

Among the most vocal opponents of gym closures is Bahram Akradi, the founder and CEO of Life Time Fitness, a Minnesota-based company that operates more than 150 gyms in 41 markets in the US and Canada. Based on data reported by Life Time Fitness analyzing 3.15 million visits to Minnesota locations since June, there were 352 positive COVID-19 cases tied back to the gyms “which equates to .0001% of total amount of cases in the state,” it said in a statement. 

According to Akradi, forcing gyms to close is “gross negligence” on behalf of state lawmakers, who he said are perpetuating “rhetoric” that points to gyms as coronavirus spreaders. Under his guidance, Life Time Fitness filed a letter to the governor of Minnesota last week requesting access to the data that informed the decision to close gyms, and urging lawmakers to reconsider shuttering fitness centers. 

“Were asking for all the data they have used to conclude their decisions,” he told Business Insider. “Our basic knowledge so far based on all the different communications we’ve had with different states with these shutdowns is that there is no solid data.”

Self Esteem Brands — another Minnesota-based health company that owns Anytime Fitness, The Bar Method, and Basecamp Fitness — has also joined the push against policymakers, sharing a memo of their own.

CEO Chuck Runyon told Business Insider his company has had the benefit of operating in 40 countries, many of which have deemed gyms and fitness as essential businesses. He said that while he is “frustrated” the same considerations aren’t being made in his company’s home state, he is optimistic that lawmakers may be amendable.

“There is some good news that policymakers around the world are noticing that [fitness] is essential,” Runyon said. “They are keeping gyms open, knowing the essential services we provide people, especially in a time of duress.”

Planet Fitness mask coronavirus pandemic

A woman works out at Planet Fitness.

Courtesy of Planet Fitness


‘This country has a health problem and it’s not just COVID’

A major argument among fitness executives for keeping gyms open is the advantage of maintaining physical and mental health during the pandemic, which experts say can stave off the virus and prevent severe symptoms that require hospitalization if contracted.

“If you look at a macro level, what’s frustrating to us is this country has a health problem and it’s not just COVID,” Runyon said. “The underlying issues are obesity, Type 2 diabetes, inactivity, mental health. There is no better time for health officials around the country to remind people to take control of our health.”

According to Runyon, maintaining a fitness regime plays a vital role in “lifestyle medicine,” the concept of proactively staying healthy in order to prevent disease. 

“Lifestyle medicine is absolutely critical and the ultimate cure to healthcare costs is healthier people,” he said. “It’s frustrating that lawmakers underestimate it, don’t understand it, or don’t believe in it. They should be fighting to keep health clubs open. They should be fighting for health coaches to be just as essential as a nurse or physical therapist.”

Andrew Alfano, CEO of the gym chain Retro Fitness, said government officials should be concerned not just about the obesity in America — where the adult obesity rate is currently at 42.4 percent, according to the CDC — but also the long-term impact of weight gain and unhealthy eating habits adopted during pandemic quarantines. 

“Health clubs are an extension of health care,” he said. “Exercise is medicine and being fit and healthy is the best vaccine anyone can have.”

Akradi echoed Runyon and Alfano, and said his goal is to help prevent skyrocketing hospital admission rates by keeping Americans healthy, that way if they do contract the virus they won’t experience severe, debilitating symptoms. 

“Our goal as a public health company is to reduce the pressure on the hospitals as well,” he said. “If people are exercising and they’re healthier, even if they get COVID, they are less likely to need hospitalization and put pressure on the hospitals.”

An uncertain future for gyms 

Though business has improved for some gym owners since the early days of the pandemic, executives like Akradi are still operating with no profit margin, a challenge he said likely won’t be alleviated until the national rollout of a vaccine. 

As a result of the pandemic, Akradi said Life Time is likely to lose about $600 million in earnings, adding that he has forgone his salary since March in order to help keep the books balanced.

“We’re financially well-heeled enough to take the damage, unlike many other operators who are in a much tougher situation,” he said. “This is not a good thing for the health and wellbeing of the communities, to have so many health club operators not be able to make it.”

According to Runyon, in certain regions of the country, Self Esteem Brand-owned businesses experienced a surge in memberships after initial lockdowns were loosened and restless residents sought ways to get out of the house and stay fit. While he said the company is projected to soon reach up to 80% of pre-pandemic usage levels at its fitness locations, he said the vaccine will be vital to reclaiming lost business. 

“There are obviously some consumer confidence issues that are related to COVID, and I do think a vaccine helps put everyone in the mindset that they can see light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “There are reasons to be enthusiastic, but that being said, we have still not at our COVID levels when it comes to usage. I think the rest of our members are just waiting a bit more until they feel it’s 100% safe.”

Meanwhile, Retro Fitness has seen a 20% increase in membership sign-ups since its gyms reopened this summer, Alfano said. He anticipates moving forward that health and wellness will become a bigger priority for most Americans after having to endure a pandemic of this scale. 

“Health and fitness is about to be more relevant than ever,” he said. “If we learned anything during the pandemic, it’s that the country had far too many unhealthy behaviors. People want to get back to their health club, they want to be fit and healthy, and I challenge all governors to focus on public health as more than just the virus.”

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