The New Work-From-Home Norm Is Making Our Workout Buddies More Essential Than Ever

Photo: Getty Images/FatCamera
When gyms were suddenly forced to close their doors in March 2020, fitness pros talked a big game about maintaining a sense of community among their clients, making people feel “together while apart” through virtual classes. Gathering on Zoom or via Instagram Live to collectively get our sweat on from our living rooms became one of the few ways we could feel united during what was, for many, the most isolated time of our lives.

Today, with stay-at-home mandates lifted, people are enthusiastically heading back to the gym. Only now, it's not just to work out—it’s to feel connected, too. After all, even though social distancing orders have relaxed, many businesses have opted to stick with remote work settings, which has left many of us more lonesome than we were pre-pandemic. So, how has this changed what we’re looking to get out of our gyms and fitness—and what they're offering?

Experts In This Article

An uptick in attendance

Even though COVID-19 infections continue to ebb and flow, thanks to vaccines and boosters, many people are getting more comfortable with the idea of re-entering communal spaces—especially the gym. According to The New York Times, Planet Fitness added 1.7 million new members in 2021 and opened 132 new locations, and U.S. membership at Crunch has increased 34 percent since pre-Covid levels.

But classic open-concept gyms aren’t the only fitness establishments that are noticing an uptick in attendance. Based on recently collected data by the Mindbody portfolio, which now encompasses ClassPass, boutique fitness class bookings are also on the rise. This March, Mindbody’s bookings were up 10 percent compared to last March, a representative from the brand told Well+Good. February 2022 also saw the most reservations since February 2020.

“Our numbers have absolutely continued to climb since last summer—with some ebbs and flows coinciding with the pandemic—but we are currently operating above our pre-COVID performance,” says [solidcore] CEO and president Bryan Myers. “Our clients are ready to be back in the studio, working out alongside their community.”

Noah Neiman, co-founder of Rumble Boxing in New York City, reveals that all Rumble studios have also seen a steady rise in client bookings—both from loyalists and newcomers. “[They’re] coming back with a higher frequency than ever,” he says. “You can just tell from the energy present in the studios, in the emails, and DMs we get, that people are excited to get back into the routines that get their social senses buzzing again.”

"People are excited to get back into the routines that get their social senses buzzing again." —Noah Neiman, Rumble Boxing

And with the flood of clients returning, many companies have made the executive decision to open more studios.

Barry’s has opened six new studios across the U.S. since January 2021, plus five new international locations, says Barry’s global CEO Joey Gonzalez. “We’re also opening a new studio in Austin, with Portland and Tampa on the horizon.” Meanwhile, [solidcore] has opened 15 more studios since the start of the pandemic, including its first West Coast location in L.A. “While the timing of some of our plans evolved as a result of the pandemic, we've never wavered from our long-term commitment to bring [solidcore] to communities all over the country,” Myers says.

The draw of group fitness

Point blank: Folks everywhere are looking for opportunities to reconnect after two years of relative isolation and social distancing.

“Since the pandemic, we’ve noticed our members appreciate the community aspect of our studio more than ever,” says Lauren McAlister, who is a nutritional therapist and co-owner of McAlister Training in San Luis Obispo, California. The reason? With an increasingly remote workforce, many people only regularly encounter their roommates or family members that they live with, so being able to head to the gym and create camaraderie with fellow members is huge. “As a studio, we see this as an opportunity to make an even bigger impact. People need connection just as much as they need movement—in a fitness class, you get both,” McAlister adds.

"People need connection just as much as they need movement—in a fitness class, you get both." —Lauren McAlister

Neiman is dubbing this trend “The Great Return”: “People are coming back in droves to experiential products and services,” he says. “Concerts, clubs, dining, gyms… Anything that makes you feel something, especially as part of a group, is bouncing back bigger than ever. ‘The Great Return’ is upon us!”

He sees this renewed interest in fitness as about more than just health. “We’re a community-based species, and during the lockdown we were stripped of that primal desire to experience life together,” he says. “Now that most regulations have been lifted, and public fear has subsided, we’re itching to get back.”

But heading to the gym is more than just another group experience. Science shows that moving in unison has a unique ability to build social bonds and improve our sense of well-being—something we can all use these days. And that social connection can also lead to enhanced exercise performance. 

In addition to providing a healthy place to create and nourish personal connections, working out together can help boost motivation to commit to a regular exercise routine, too. It turns out, we find exercise more intrinsically satisfying when it's more social. Competing with our peers can also be a huge draw.

According to ClassPass’ 2021 Fitness & Beauty Trends Report:

  • People are 45 percent more likely to continue with a new workout routine if they take a class with a friend during their first month on ClassPass.
  • Those who regularly work out with friends are more likely to stick with it: ClassPassers who exercise alongside friends are 63 percent more likely to keep a routine for 12 months or longer.
  • Two-thirds of people say in-studio classes make it easier to keep up a routine.

A 2021 study published in Social Science & Medicine even found that belonging to a sport or exercise group can help protect us against depression, likely because it helps us stick with an exercise regimen—and feel less lonely while doing it.

Connecting beyond the studio

Knowing that clients are returning to the studio both for fitness and social connection, many gyms are expanding their efforts to help clients get the most out of their memberships.

“These days, we're hosting about as many events as we were pre-pandemic, which is about once a month,” says McAlister, who is also a senior marketing specialist for Mindbody. Whether it’s an Outdoor Easter Egg Workout, Halloween Kickball, or a happy hour with members, McAlister says it’s all about bringing people together. “Our members come from all walks of life but love being able to get together and bond over a shared interest,” she says. “People honestly are just looking for connection and we're more than happy to be a place to find that.”

At Barry’s, Gonzalez says, the studio is constantly looking for ways to connect clients both in and out of the studio. “Whether it be class challenges like ‘Face Yourself’ with an emphasis on mental wellness, or ‘United We Sprint’ to celebrate and give back to the LGBTQIA+ community in June, we’re always creating ways for our community to show up for themselves, and each other,” he says.

This sense of connection is creating one more reason to look forward to our workouts. “Group fitness provides an unparalleled sense of community that many of us have missed over the last two years,” Gonzalez says. “It allows us to show up for ourselves, while being in the company of others who share the same goal of getting stronger every day, both physically and mentally.”

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