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Call it a comeback: Gyms, workouts surge to pre-pandemic levels, investors buying up area retail space

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Posted at 6:31 AM, Nov 28, 2022

AKRON, Ohio — Many of you are probably waking up and thinking, "Man, I ate too much on Thanksgiving. Maybe, I should go to the gym!"

You're not alone.

Experts say we are seeing a major shift when it comes to people returning to in-person workouts, and it's not just because of that post-holiday weight gain.

New research shows gyms nationwide have surpassed pre-pandemic levels.

Since February—gym visits are 13% higher than at the same time in 2019, according to Creditntell.

More investors are buying up retail space, as well.

Gym owners in Northeast Ohio told News 5 they have experienced a surge in enrollment.

Experts say it's a multi-fold situation between looser COVID-19 restrictions and a desire to want to feel better.

"The pandemic hit, and everything shut down, so studios were closed. I wasn't teaching yoga anymore. And I was just training out of my house by myself," said Serenity Messner, Owner of Generation Strong/Strength Coach.

Messner's entrepreneurial journey admittedly started in a place she never expected—her garage.

Like so many of us, she was cooped up inside back in 2020.

As the case counts improved though—she noticed people wanted to work out in person, in a group setting—so she got creative—and used what she had.

"As things started to open up a little bit, I would have people one-on-one in my driveway or in my garage, and we would just train kettlebells and it started to grow into this whole other thing," said Messner.

Fast forward to July 2021- the clear and strong demand for in-person workouts continued, so she opened her own gym on West Market Street in Akron.

It's called "Generation Strong," specializing in workouts that help you build strength through kettlebells and barbells.

The numbers and attendance were even stronger, she more than doubled her client base, continues to fill classes each day, and has booked out one-on-one instructional lessons year-over-year.

"That's really what people are craving is that in-person experience and having that connection with someone— knowing that they're safe and have eyes on them," said Messner.

Messner struck while the iron was hot, and she was not alone.

Gyms and in-person fitness visits jumped by 18% from March through August at the same time in 2019, According to Placer.ai—which tracks retail foot traffic.

Global real estate firm CBRE reports, retail space more than doubled from two million square feet to 4.5 million square feet.

Class bookings are 10% higher than in pre-pandemic times, according to Mindbody.

Corporate fitness chains like Planet Fitness experienced serious growth as well.

They ended the quarter with more than 16.6 million members, an all-time high, and added 29 new locations during the quarter.

"With the added focus of staying healthy, we've seen check-ins and memberships grow in comparison to last year. We know that Clevelanders are focused on their overall health and wellness like never before," said Michael Simms, Planet Fitness Area Director for West Clubs in Ohio.

Dr. Susan Albers, Cleveland Clinic Clinical Psychologist says the numbers aren't shocking.

While there are still societal concerns, the anxiety and fear over covid have greatly dissipated.

"During the pandemic, there was a 25% increase in depression and anxiety as well as emotional eating substance use. So, people are ready to feel good again," said Albers.

In addition, she says returning to the office is a significant factor in the increase in gym memberships.

The number one time that people built in going to the gym pre-pandemic was on their commute before and after work.

And while so many people bought exercise bikes and even Pelotons during the peak pandemic—experts say this turnaround moment shows that there are far-reaching benefits when it comes to working out in person or in a group setting.

"The gym can offer you something that your stationary bike cannot offer you at home, and that is connection. When we go to the gym, we are surrounded by people, which increases motivation, a little bit of competition as well as support," said Albers.

Albers says exercise triggers the release of endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine.

All those feel-good chemicals flow through the brain and help reduce stress.

It's why Maria Varonis enrolled at Generation Strong and hasn't looked back since.

"There's something to say about in-person connection, camaraderie, community and you just can't replace that," said Varonis of West Akron.

Generation Strong has grown so much, they're now open six days a week.

Planet Fitness reports 3.5 million teens have signed up for their High School Summer Pass program.

So what does this mean for the long term?

Experts say they don't have a crystal ball, but the global fitness marketplace is expected to make well over $1.2 trillion.

Peloton which peaked during the height of the pandemic is working to regain footing after the company lost more than $430 million last quarter.

The company is now offering a series of discounted items and free membership rates for their app.