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A fitness class takes place at Delta Train Liberty Village in Toronto, on July 10, 2020.

Chris Young/The Canadian Press

The fitness industry has been hit hard by COVID-19. Across Canada and the world, gyms of all sizes have been crushed by mounting bills and fading morale. Independent trainers like myself have been forced to pivot into the online world, with remote training via video apps becoming the new normal. It’s a difficult position to be in.

And while much of this country has moved forward with various reopening plans that include gyms and other fitness and health facilities, several regions across Ontario remain stuck in the murky limbo that is Phase 2. The regulations for Phase 2 are confusing to say the least: coaches and trainers are allowed to work with clients outside of gyms, and groups of 10 or less are allowed to exercise together outdoors with proper distancing guidelines in place, but equipment sharing is forbidden and areas with outdoor fitness equipment must remain closed.

Thanks to COVID-19, the big-box fitness model’s days may be numbered

It is with all of this in mind that I reached out to some fitness professionals who operate in very different spheres of the industry. I wanted to find what they’ve been doing to sustain their businesses during the lockdown, what their plans are for reopening, and what contingencies they have in place if and when a second wave hits. It comes as no surprise that all three are optimistic for the future. After all, in this profession, a positive attitude is pretty much mandatory.

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The CEO

Name: Sergio Pedemonte

Business: Your House Fitness

Your House Fitness (YHF) offers in-home personal training at condos and residences across the Greater Toronto Area. Before COVID-19, chief executive Sergio Pedemonte was the captain in charge of a mini-army of 50 trainers. These days he’s keeping busy by pumping out free content on the YHF blog The Wellness Vault, as well as pumping out reps at his office/studio space where he’s spent the majority of the lockdown.

“We’ve lost 95 per cent of our cash flow,” Mr. Pedemonte says. “Thankfully, our business model involves trainers working with clients at their homes, so we don’t have the same overhead expenses as a gym. And our trainers are independent contractors, so they’re free to pursue private business on their own terms while the lockdown is in effect.”

Mr. Pedemonte is reluctant to make any bold predictions about the future of the business he’s devoted the past five years of his life to building. He does, however, have some thoughts about the industry as a whole. “Big box gyms are going to have a hard time. I can’t see them surviving without some sort of government bailout. The online training market is going to take over, to the point of market saturation. You’re going to see more companies like Peloton, companies that offer high-end in-home training experiences.”

The Clinical Practitioner

Name: Alex St. Pierre, DC, CSCS

Business: STRONG

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In September, 2019, working with his business partners, Alex St. Pierre opened a 1,400-square-foot facility in Toronto’s west end, offering both personal training and physical therapy services. As the new year settled into place, things were looking good. So good, in fact, there was talk of opening a second location in the same warehouse park. Then came COVID-19. “Like everyone else, we got caught with our pants down. But regardless what happens, this will be our best year ever,” St. Pierre says.

The impact on this burgeoning business has been profound, with revenue losses nearing 90 per cent. But because the province’s Phase 2 rules differ from industry to industry, St. Pierre, a doctor of chiropractic care, is able to see clinical care patients. Business is slow, though. Services are operating at around 25 per cent of typical volume.

Private training spaces such as STRONG occupy a unique space in the industry. Yes, they are gyms, but the scale at which they operate – and the nature of the services they provide – puts them in a different category from the GoodLifes and Planet Fitnesses. Why is it that a chiropractor can see clients but a personal trainer can’t? The ambiguity of the reopening rules is just one of many woes entrepreneurs in every sector face. However, St. Pierre is optimistic about the future of his business.

“Our members know who we are and they know each other. They know who they’re going to be training beside. This gives smaller facilities like ours an advantage.”

The Nonprofit

Name: Tammy MacDonald, senior vice president of health and fitness

Business: YMCA of Greater Toronto

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The YMCA is one of the most recognizable community health service providers in the world. With more than 120 fitness centres across Canada, including nine in the Greater Toronto Area, the Y is a home away from home for thousands. When these buildings were forced to shut their doors because of COVID-19, the impact was immediate (full disclosure: I was an employee of the West End College Street YMCA for five years).

“Our staff are simply incredible and we value their important work so much, which made a decision to lay off staff early in the pandemic a very difficult one,” said Tammy MacDonald, the senior VP of health and fitness, in an e-mail interview.

Fortunately, the Y has been able to access the federal wage subsidy program, allowing for some of these staff members to be rehired. Trainers from the health and fitness team are now helping the community stay active by delivering free live classes online. But the Y hasn’t stopped there.

According to MacDonald, the Y has a long history of stepping up when times get tough. Two of the shuttered GTA fitness centres are serving as local food banks: the Mississauga YMCA Food Pantry is open to everyone in need, regardless of where you live and whether you’re a YMCA member or not, whereas the Scarborough YMCA is working in partnership with the Daily Bread Food Bank to deliver food to its members. “We’ve also offered spaces to local hospitals if needed due to a surge in capacity. However, fortunately, none have had to take us up on that,” she added.

Until the province gives the green light to reopen, MacDonald says the Toronto-area fitness centres will keep working to meet the needs of the community in creative ways. The scope of their vision, however, remains focused on health services.

“The pandemic has reinforced how important physical activity is to mental health, skills development and building relationships. Those will be just as important to our communities in the future as they are today. In fact, supporting people’s health and wellbeing will likely become even more important because of the pandemic.”

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Paul Landini is a personal trainer and health educator in Toronto.

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