Valley News – New Hampshire fitness centers bounce back strong after tough pandemic

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit more than two years ago, gym owners wondered what the future would look like.

Get Fit NH owner Meagan Baron was in an especially difficult position as she realized soon into the pandemic that her business, in its current state, would have an especially tough time bouncing back.

Baron, who has owned the Concord club for six years, couldn’t safely reopen her group training. Her space was a mere 400 square feet, which didn’t make it large enough to adequately distance her members.

She decided to make a huge leap, despite at the time offering only online and recorded classes and seeing her membership down to 226 from 277 before the pandemic. She moved to a 10,000-square-foot space that was outfitted with huge garage doors on both ends for proper air circulation.

“The move was definitely a blessing in disguise,” Baron explained. “It has been one of those rare silver linings (during the pandemic). I look at the space now and wonder how was I ever able to operate before.”

In only 1½ years in the new location, Get Fit NH’s membership has steadily increased and now has eclipsed 300.

With the extra space, Baron is now able to offer her growing membership services like physical therapy and a dietician.

Her growth coincides with a national trend that has seen gym visits ticking up in the past 12 months. Hampton-based national chain Planet Fitness was at 97% of pre-pandemic membership levels, with more than 15.5 million members nationally, according to a November CNBC interview with CEO Chris Rondeau. At many other gyms — like Get Fit NH — membership has exceeded pre-pandemic days.

“(Three hundred members) was my goal when I got into this business,” Baron said. “I just cleared that in the last three months. And I am still seeing consistent growth.”

People are growing tired of online workout options, so they’re choosing to seek out gym communities and open new memberships. All of that has led to increased gym memberships nationally, according to an analysis of data by Placer Lab, a software company that uses foot traffic to decipher trends. The report found that in the fourth quarter of 2021 there was a 2.5% increase in memberships from the fourth quarter of 2019, just prior to the start of the pandemic.

The new, larger space at Get Fit NH allowed members like Kate Fox to return and be a part of the gym community again.

As the world started to change in March 2020 with the onset of the pandemic, Fox’s life also took a U-turn when she was saddled with the huge task of taking care of her elderly mother while continuing to work full time. More than ever she needed Get Fit NH, where she has been a member for 11 years.

“I missed the camaraderie. I missed the exercise,” said Fox, 62, who now lives in northern Vermont but still visits Concord, and Get Fit NH, a couple of days a week.

Baron feels that more people are coming back to the gym for more than a physical workout. She noted that the pandemic has taken a mental toll on many — the mental release of a workout or the camaraderie is as important as a toned or muscular body.

“People are coming here for emotional and mental health as much as physical health,” she said. “There is more emphasis on that at gyms, more than ever. I’ve said throughout our closure: People need people.”

The same desire has new members reaching out.

“I think the push for people to start something stemmed from mental and emotional stress more than their physical health,” Baron said. “It is a very rewarding feeling (as a gym owner) for sure.”

River Valley Club in Lebanon is not at its pre-pandemic numbers. The club currently has a little bit over 1,700 members, down from 3,000 at the end of January 2020. Still, owner Elizabeth Asch feels her business is trending in the right direction thanks to changes in the club since March 2020.

The club built an outdoor space for workouts and classes, now offers free memberships to those age 90 and older, and, like with most clubs, has been adamant about cleanliness.

“We turned over every rock to think about what we can do. It was really about staying in business,” Asch said. “People wanted to work out. I wanted to show the community that we are committed to growing even in difficult times, in order to meet their needs.”

That was evident during the club’s four-month closure at the start of the pandemic when employees of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center—which is across the street from River Valley Club—received free membership that included online and live classes. A few hundred members joined in the first couple of days, with many continuing the membership after the four months.

Asch also started to collaborate with fellow club owners — unheard of pre-pandemic — to share ideas and initiatives to help everyone prosper.

“I think we are better than we ever have been,” Asch said, “because we listen more and because we are more involved in the community.”

Jamie and Kristen Brause opened their unique New London fitness studio, Hungry Hearts Gym + Kitchen, at the right time.

The couple moved from Cambridge, Mass., to give the community a place where they can work out as well as learn how important eating healthy is with on-site nutrition, cooking education and take-home meals.

The idea has been a huge hit. Hungry Hearts eclipsed 100 members in the first three months after opening in August 2021, coinciding with the national trend of gym visits increasing. The gym currently has 130 members.

“Our membership has been steadily increasing since day one and it’s been no different these past couple months,” said Kristen Brause, who is responsible for the nutrition side of the business. “We continue seeing more and more curious walk-ins, scheduled consultations and new members. There hasn’t been a week these past couple months when we haven’t welcomed multiple new members.”

Brause agrees with the trends and surveys that people just want to get back into the gym, worrying less about masks and COVID policies. With vaccines and clubs’ attention to cleanliness, members can concentrate on getting healthy.

“I think the continued increase is in part due to the fact that the first questions people ask are no longer ‘What are your mask and vaccine policies?’ but rather ‘What is your philosophy and approach and how can you help me reach my goals?’ Brause said. “We now get to go straight to discussing what we do here and how we can help.”

People now base their decision to join on what Hungry Hearts offers. While health and cleanliness are always a priority, it’s nice to be able to focus on the core services again, Brause said.

“That was one of the most challenging aspects of opening our business when we did,” she said.

This article is being shared by partners in the Granite State News Collaborative. For more information, visit collaborativenh.org.

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