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City fitness centres running on empty as suburban gyms rebound


City-based fitness centres say membership numbers are still down by up to 70 per cent compared to before the coronavirus pandemic, as gym-goers sidestep to suburban health studios.

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Gyms and fitness centres were forced to close during widespread lockdowns to limit the spread of coronavirus in March last year.

While they were allowed to re-open in June they were subject to a raft of restrictions, some of which are still in place.

Aleenta co-founder Kylie Roberts said attendance at her Rundle Street barre and Pilates studio was down by between 70 and 80 per cent compared with the start of 2020.

She said while the Adelaide CBD studio had been able to reopen in a limited capacity in June, the reduction in office workers and students returning to the city had drastically impacted Aleenta’s lunchtime classes, which had never recovered.

“Our lunchtime classes were our most popular classes in the CBD and now we’ve cut all of our lunchtime classes because we just had no one coming,” Roberts said.

“That says to us that the make-up of people in the city is quite different to what it was pre-COVID.

“Whether that’s permanent or temporary, I don’t know.”

Roberts said the studio had also changed its mix of classes six months ago in a bid to stay afloat, introducing reformer Pilates in the city following its popularity among members at its suburban sites.

She said membership at the business’s suburban studios and one in Queensland was up by 20 per cent for the same period.

Similarly, global fitness brand Ryderwear said membership at its Flinders Park gym and store had been “positive” with an influx of gym-goers driving the Adelaide-founded activewear label to prepare to open four more gyms in SA and Western Australia.

A spokesperson for the company said it was planning to franchise following the success of its flagship bricks-and-mortar store in Adelaide’s east in February and expected its first new studio to be open before the end of the year.

Ryderwear and Aleenta’s experiences represent the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on fitness centres across the country – but to a greater degree than most – according to Fitness Australia CEO Barrie Elvish.

He said gym-goers had returned to suburban fitness studios before their city counterparts, with the average membership rate across the country at 85 per cent of pre-COVID levels.

Elvish said Sydney and Melbourne CBD gyms remained particularly hard hit while Adelaide experienced the same struggles, but to a lesser degree.

“Until those people go back to work, those gyms are going to still experience some degree of pain,” he said.

“The flipside of that is that if those gyms are franchise groups, the people that would normally go to an inner-city gym that was close to work are now going close to home, so they’ve lost to the other franchises who’ve won out.”

Elvish said as well as office workers and international students, Baby Boomers were slow to get back into the gym, with many continuing to suspend their memberships until a vaccine had been rolled out effectively.

He said while many fitness centres feared for their future at the beginning of the pandemic, the federal government’s JobKeeper payment and increased messaging to exercise had been key to keeping many of the industry association’s members afloat.

“We were expecting some closures when they pulled JobKeeper out – and that still may filter through the system – but I’m not aware of any businesses that have closed because of JobKeeper being withdrawn last month,” Elvish said.

“The other thing that has come out of it is the government’s consistent messaging that you can only go outside for four reasons to go to the doctor, to go shopping, work if you can’t work from home, and to exercise.

“Exercise is now top of mind and it’s really because the government has acknowledged at long last that government has got a critical role to play in keeping people well – not just physically well but mentally well.”

A global survey by American-based company RunRepeat of 10,000 gym-goers in May 2020 found Americans were the least likely to return to their gym, while 41 per cent of Australians surveyed had either cancelled or were considering cancelling their memberships at the time.

A further study of 5055 gym members worldwide by the company in August found Australians were the most likely to have returned to their gym – at 53 per cent, compared with 29 per cent in the US, 31 per cent in Canada and 32 per cent in the UK.

According to the study, Australians were also the least likely to have cancelled their memberships at 15.2 per cent.

YMCA SA marketing and technology head Devan Seamans said membership across the organisation’s nine recreation and fitness centres had recovered from an initial hit of cancellations 12 months ago.

He said new members from other gyms and young people joining for the first time had increased memberships across the board but attendances were down between 10 and 15 per cent.

“We have the same amount of members but they’re coming slightly less overall,” Seamans said.

“And they’re more likely to cancel if they’re not using memberships, so every gym in the world there are members who only use once a week or once a month, or once every couple of months.

“We’re finding that there’s a lower tolerance in keeping that membership with lower frequency use. They don’t hold onto them if they’re not using the membership.”

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