Has coronavirus changed the fitness industry forever?

Credit: PA

The impact of the coronavirus lockdown on businesses has not been positive on the whole and yet the fitness industry continues to flourish.

While household names fold into administration and retailers warn of an uncertain future, the world of home exercise has bucked that trend.

The fitness industry has adapted to life in lockdown and could well hold on to those changes permanently.

As leisure facilities closed, so too did permanent outdoor gyms in parks around the UK. Credit: PA

The rallying cry of fitness company Les Mills - which runs exercise classes in leisure facilities worldwide as well as a digital service - is to "create a fitter planet".

The company's Europe CEO says the pandemic is helping to achieve that.

Since the outbreak began the Les Mills brand has seen "participation rates increasing" as people are being "encouraged to exercise" like never before, Martin Franklin told ITV News.

He pointed to how news and the media are now offering nearly daily reminders of the importance of keeping fit, in a way that was not seen pre-pandemic.

One could even see the UK government implicitly encouraging regular exercise when it introduced lockdown measures on March 23 - telling people they could only go outside for one form of outside exercise per day.

The Les Mills online platform has seen a 900 per cent increase in sign-ups since the onset of the outbreak. Credit: Les Mills

As a global brand, Mr Franklin says the company has seen the impact of coronavirus lockdown "all year" from China - now out of lockdown - to the US and now the UK.

The company's digital fitness platform has seen a 900 per cent increase in sign ups as people turn to home workout sessions.

But will a shift to virtual workouts continue once restrictions begin to ease?

"Is it going to be something that stays? For sure - how big that change will be remains to be seen. It's definitely been a transformation but it's accelerated a transformation that was already happening," Mr Franklin said.

He is not, however, convinced that the "live experience" of working out in a gym or group studio will ever be replaced.

Mr Franklin said: "The biggest part of exercise activity is entertainment, engagement and social interaction. The live experience is never going to go away [it] is always going to be the pinnacle."

The company says women make up 92 per cent of its online users. Credit: Les Mills

As the gym becomes people's living rooms, home exercise equipment joined the ranks of flour and toilet roll in the initial rush to get hold of items as the UK went into lockdown.

One provider, Gorilla Sports UK, was forced to temporarily pause sales at the end of March after seeing "a massive surge in demand".

In a statement the company said: "We were forced to make the difficult decision to suspend sales while we worked round the clock to reduce the order backlog."

With fitness equipment comes clothing, and exercise wear retailer Gymshark seems to be another winner from the pandemic.

The Solihull-based firm was ranked top among Britain's private companies with the fast-growing profits, in the Sunday Times Profit Track league table in February.

Though the measure considers the past three years and "before coronavirus struck," the list only features companies "that explicitly still wanted to be featured".

Established by 27-year-old Ben Francis in 2012, the retailer saw profits surge by 156 per cent a year in 2019 - raking in £18.6 million.

The firm has reflected the change in workout habits on its social media channels, renaming itself Homeshark.

It has also joined in with national recognition for frontline workers - for every #NHSsweatyselfie photo taken by the Gymshark's "fans" the company has pledged to donate £5 to Birmingham-based NHS facilities.

Perhaps most reflective of the company's continuing success during the outbreak, the press release for the Sunday Times Profit Track says Gymshark has no plans to furlough staff during the outbreak.

Gyms across the country closed after Boris Johnson introduced lockdown measures. Credit: PA

But with gyms and leisure facilities across the country told to close their doors during the lockdown, not all elements of the fitness industry can be coming out on top.

Fitness groups including Barry's Bootcamp, PureGym, and Virgin Active have all confirmed they are awaiting government advice before reopening.

Humphrey Cobbold, CEO of PureGym, told BBC Radio 4's Today Programme the chain was already looking at how it could allow for social distancing and capping member numbers.

Fitness instructor Joe Wicks has built a mass following coaching classes virtually during the lockdown. Credit: PA

For global firm Les Mills the closure of gyms and leisure facilities - and the impact this had on instructors - was the "first thought" when responding to the lockdown according to Mr Franklin.

Instructor-led classes within fitness clubs are the company's "core business" and so figuring out how best to support the whole host of people affected by the lockdown had to happen quickly.

Measures included opening up digital access to members of gyms within the company's partnership, and getting new content to the 130,000 instructors worldwide trying to continue teaching despite gym closures.

With no definitive end in sight to the UK's coronavirus lockdown, the impact of stay-at-home measures continues to change the fitness industry.

How lasting and deep-rooted that change will be will all be part of the new normal people have been warned to expect as the UK comes through the pandemic.

Coronavirus: Everything you need to know