lison Phillips, an associate professor of psychology at Iowa State University, grew so, so tired of using the elliptical machine in her home, day after day, for over a year during the pandemic. First off, the repetition was aching her feet. But even worse, it hurt her mind. “It’s boring,” says Phillips. “Same thing, all the time.” So two weeks to the day after Phillips received her second COVID-19 vaccine shot, she returned to her local gym. “I needed the variety of activities,” says Phillips. “For not just my feet, but for interest sake.”
After going back to the gym, Phillips noticed that she was much more outgoing than she had been during her pre-pandemic workouts. “Seeing people was really important to me,” she says. “This was funny to me.” Before the COVID-19 pandemic, says Phillips, “I didn’t go to the gym for social ties, because I had small children and a full-time job. I was there to be efficient. I would avoid people so I didn’t have to talk.” Now, Phillips found herself budgeting ten minutes or so of extra time at her gym in Ames, Iowa for chit-chat. “I started talking to people that I had seen for years before the pandemic, and I had never talked them,” she says. “But I got back and I said, ‘I’m so happy to see you.’ I was motivated to chat with people. That was nice, to see people and be recognized by others. We had this shared sense of, we want to be here. And we’ve made it through this pandemic. It was just a breath of fresh air socially. And I changed as a person.”
Plus, socializing at the gym has improved her workouts. “My mood has been better,” says Phillips. “And when your mood is better, you have more energy to put into exercise.”
Many Americans, it seems, share Williams’ newfound affinity for the gym. Visits have nearly returned to pre-pandemic levels; gym visits were down just 8% in early October compared the same period 2019, according to data cited by CNBC. On Nov. 4, Planet Fitness, the gym chain with more than 2,000 locations, reported a solid rebound in the third quarter: revenue increased 46% to $154.3 million compared to the same period a year ago. Net income increased to $21.9 million, versus a $3.3 million net loss in the third quarter of 2020. Planet Fitness CEO Chris Rondeau said during an earnings call that membership was at 97% of pre-pandemic totals, at more than 15 million. Planet Fitness’ stock price rose 16% over the next two days.
Meanwhile, shares of Peloton, the web-connected home exercise bike and treadmill that grew in popularity as Americans were cooped up in their living rooms during the pandemic shutdowns, have fallen more than 40% since the company announced worse than expected earnings on the same day as Planet Fitness’s results. Peloton posted lower-than-expected revenue and a higher-than-expected net loss of $376 million, or $1.25 per share, for its most recent quarter.
During the height of the pandemic, such a reversal of fortunes for Planet Fitness and Peloton seemed almost unimaginable. Home exercise proved convenient, while crowded gyms seemed ripe for the spread of the virus. Phillips—who has studied the benefits of group exercise, which include lower stress levels and significant improvements in mental, physical, and emotional quality of life—worried that gyms would go under. “People were working out at home and became good at it,” she says.
But it turns out that people missed their old routines. And this news doesn’t just bode well for Planet Fitness. The comeback of gym workouts mark a return to pre-pandemic normalcy. And assuming countless people like Williams are embracing lost human connectivity at the gym, the success of chains like Planet Fitness could make America a happier place.