COLUMBIA — The restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic prompted many gym customers to find new ways to exercise at home, but in recent months South Carolina gym owners say they have seen a strong return by customers.
Some gyms and fitness studios closed amid the challenges, but those that made it through report a strong customer return.
"As soon as we reopened our classes were completely full," said Jennie Brooks, owner of The Longevity Club on Rutledge Avenue in Charleston.
A nationwide customer survey by the Upswell marketing firm, which works with fitness companies, found that about 27 percent of habitual gym customers had not regularly returned. The company published its findings in September.
Home fitness options such as Peloton and Tonal experienced strong growth amid the surges of COVID-19, especially while gyms were closed.
Some also took a step back in fitness: Almost one-third of those surveyed by Upswell said they were not working out as often as before the pandemic.
In South Carolina, the coming of COVID vaccines prompted gym-goers to return quickly even if a surge kept them away for awhile, Brooks said.
Starting at only about 2,000 square feet, Longevity has bought its building in the past two years and has expanded to take on almost all of its 14,000 square feet of space.
Memberships have risen about 55 percent since last year, Brooks said, fueled in part by those who are relocating to Charleston.
People with established fitness habits are moving into the area from the Northeast, Washington or California and immediately finding a place to work out, and Longevity has benefited from that, she said.
In Columbia, Drew Mobley is an investor in two gyms of different styles, one with free weights and one class-focused, within a mile of each other downtown. Business at both has been steady with few interruptions from the pandemic, he said.
Basecamp Fitness, which Mobley co-owns, was successfully launched in 2021 with a focus on classes that mix a variety of exercises in a single session, with participants rotating between stations to lift weights or ride stationary bikes.
He also owns an Anytime Fitness location on Devine Street, where members can stop by and use equipment or weights at their own pace instead of being in a class.
Both have had steady traffic in the past year, and the fitness market seems evenly split between the two styles, Mobley said.
People tried home answers while they had to in the pandemic, Mobley said, but many of them are looking for ways to improve their health further after stalling out with their at-home routine.
Even tightening economic times have not greatly dented the recent demand for gym time, Mobley said, because health is a priority for them.
"People are willing to have fitness as an essential," Mobley said.
People often decide to seek out a gym or other fitness option when they have a health scare such as COVID, said Olly Pierce, owner of Brit's Brothers Gym in Greenville. That worry can prompt a push for an improvement in basic health that spurs an overall lifestyle change.
"I think that can be a healthy fear," Pierce said.
Brit's Brothers, located on Airport Road, is an old-school gym featuring weightlifting and kickboxing. It has seen its customer numbers stabilize in the past year after the pandemic had caused disruptions in attendance, he said.
The larger point of a gym is not just to work up a sweat, Pierce said, but to build a coaching relationship and to teach people how to help their own health. In doing so, Pierce said, customers often boost their self-esteem and ability to take out challenges outside the gym.
"It gives them a lot more confidence in their day," Pierce said.