Things were looking up for Jason Zenga in late 2019 and in early 2020.
The personal trainer worked out of a gym based in Santa Monica, California, where he taught classes twice a week. He also worked as an independent corporate trainer through a partnership with his friend, where they’d go to offices and train employees at companies across Los Angeles.
But business began to dry up in March, as local and federal governments began implementing stricter policies to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. All of a sudden, the gym that employed Zenga closed. There were no offices to go to train employees at, and Zenga could only train the last few of his clients virtually. He had to apply for unemployment benefits.
“All the uncertainty was frustrating,” Zenga told CNN.
Meanwhile, across the country, Atlanta-based trainer Bria Young found her business booming during the pandemic. When gyms began to close, Young transitioned to packaging workouts into online digital programs on her website, and began selling them.
“It completely flip-flopped, I didn’t even need to go back to in-person training,” Young told CNN. “I was able to find a new passion during this pandemic.”
There’s no question that the fitness industry has been upended by the pandemic – and for some trainers like Zenga, the last 10 months have proved to be financially devastating. For others, like Young, the pandemic has turned into a fruitful opportunity to pivot to virtual full time.
Fitness industry lost 480,000 jobs due to Covid-19
The fitness industry employed 3 million part-time and full-time employees prior to the pandemic, and as of October 1 at least 480,000 jobs have been lost, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), a global trade association for the health and fitness industry.
“While other small businesses could pivot and sell online or do take-out orders, health clubs, and their staff of personal trainers and group instructors, had no real opportunities to earn revenue,” IHRSA spokesperson Sami Smith told CNN in an email.
Capacity restrictions on gyms meant “fewer people are visiting the club, which also translates to less personal training sessions and group exercise classes,” Smith said.
“Some clubs and trainers have successfully pivoted to make money with outdoor workouts and virtual classes, but these are nowhere near enough to cover the difference.”
Patrons stopped going to the gym once Covid-19 hit
Prior to the pandemic, more than half of US exercisers were working out at home, according to a September report from the market intelligence agency Mintel.
With Covid-19 wreaking havoc on the US, people are even less likely now to go to their local gym.
“When asked about their comfort level returning to certain activities, over half of consumers said they were not comfortable going back to the gym,” Mintel’s report found.
That meant a blow to a lot of personal trainers’ pockets.
“All of a sudden it’s a number missing from your bank account,” said Chiheb Soumer, a personal training and wellness expert based out of Los Angeles, whose entire business model at one point was training in corporate offices.
“I lost 50% of my personal training clients because people are just scared. Gyms are closed so unless you have your own gym or you train outside, it’s tricky.”
Going virtual didn’t work for everyone
The pivot to virtual was not an easy one across the board for personal trainers.
“I know trainers now who are doing security because they don’t have enough clientele, they’ve been forced to do other jobs,” said Ricardo Cornett, a trainer in Atlanta.
Zenga, the Los Angeles trainer who applied for unemployment, said he wasn’t the biggest fan of virtual training.
“It’s really hard to establish a connection with someone who you’ve never met in person and if they don’t have access to equipment,” he said.
While Zenga did try virtual training, he said “the attendance rate was super low, but the attrition was super high” because people would come in, check it out and never come back.
Virtual training was also very difficult for him because he charged for all his virtual sessions, whereas other trainers did it for free.
“The only people that stuck around with the online stuff were people who knew me,” Zenga said.
Soumer, Zenga’s business partner, said it’s also difficult to give directions for exercises virtually and see if clients are doing it correctly. That’s why he enjoys “the personal part of personal training much more.”
Going virtual meant getting creative
The pandemic has also changed the entire job of a personal trainer, one that is solely based on human interaction in a time where interacting can mean contracting the virus. Personal trainers have had to become more creative and entrepreneurial than ever before.
“Never in my life have I ever had to be quite so creative professionally,” said Samm Haden, a trainer based out of Los Angeles, who said that the pandemic has allowed her to “find a whole other level of creativity.”
Both Haden and Young, the Atlanta-based trainer, went the virtual route – and saw a lot of success.
Haden initially took a week and a half off to brainstorm how she could move forward during the pandemic. She began doing live videos on Instagram three times a week, which transitioned into 30-day online video challenges on YouTube that she films with her family. As part of that challenge she created accountability groups on Facebook, so people could feel more connected.
“It allows people to feel like they’re getting to know people as they’re working out and building a relationship,” Haden told CNN. “That helps people feel committed to people and accountability with other people.”
Similarly, Young said she always had a dream of going online despite training in a gym prior to the pandemic. When everything started changing, she began offering her gym program online, and created different challenges like “Squatober,” bikini and nutrition challenges, which more than tripled her income.
Young said she plans to take a step back from the in-person training going into the new year.
“I’m realizing I can reach a lot more people being online with my training,” Young said. “Hopefully I can create an app at some point.”
Trainers remain hopeful about the future
Personal trainers tend to be very positive people for the most part, said Soumer, the Los Angeles trainer.
“Even if you want to stay positive, you can’t deny that this year is harder than previous years,” Soumer said. “So many gyms closed, so many trainers lost their jobs. It sucks.”
But trainers – like he and Zenga – still have hope that the fitness industry will bounce back, eventually.
Soumer still has four clients – going forward he plans to work on things he can control. He’s revamping his social media presence and building a website.
Zenga, who was on a cross-country road trip at the time this article was written, said he plans to head back to Los Angeles and open a boxing gym.
“As soon as the government let’s us operate,” he said, “we’re ready to rock.”