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GoodLife Fitness – one seen here in Toronto in 2013 – like many other gyms in the country, started offering free online workout classes soon after it closed its doors in mid-March as part of the COVID-19 lockdown.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Olivia Jones was a frequent gym-goer at GoodLife Fitness until early March, when she became scared to contract the novel coronavirus.

The 24-year-old from Chatham, Ont., was bothered by equipment sharing and frequent surface touching – both boons for viral spread. Luckily for her, GoodLife Fitness, similar to many other gyms in the country, started offering free online workout classes soon after it closed its doors in mid-March as part of the COVID-19 lockdown. Jones likes that the virtual offering saved her money and she is now contemplating whether or not she will return to in-person workouts after the lockdown is lifted.

“The free alternatives have made working out at home more enjoyable and I have actually been motivated,” Jones said. “I think it will be a while before I return to a larger gym setting.”

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Jones is part of a generation of exercisers who are learning to stay in shape by sprinting up and down deserted high school parking lots, doing chin-ups in their basements on a bar made from scratch and maybe even dusting off a VCR and mirroring a pre-Frankie and Grace Jane Fonda through a low-impact aerobics workout.

Those home-made alternatives don’t completely replace the feelings of routine and community we find at the gym, and they clearly make for worse Instagram pics. But the temporary closing of fitness facilities has made many of us realize that we can get fit for free.

So what does that mean for gyms once the lockdowns end? What happens to Orangetheory Fitness if half its members realize they prefer kettle-bell garage workouts to memberships that can cost up to $200 a month? And what becomes of GoodLife Fitness when potential new clients balk at the $99 start-up fee and invest it in a set of dumbbells for the home gym they’ve started to piece together?

Compound a newfound hesitance to pay big for fitness with a fear of lingering coronavirus particles on the leg-press and it becomes obvious: Times will soon be tough and Darwinian for gym owners. As we save our coins and grow home-bodied, we may get to choose our postpandemic gyms not for their complimentary tanning sessions and matching tank tops, but for their low charges and online platforms.

Gyms that have become cheap and virtual, such as Evolve Fitness in Halifax, are thriving. In an effort to keep his 750 clients engaged, co-founder Matt Benvie offered his first online class through his iPhone shortly after the gym closed for the lockdown. He has since upgraded to a state-of-the-art video system, because more than 1,000 new members tuned into classes, sometimes 10 times daily, all through Zoom.

The current price for these online classes? At first, it was a minimum donation to a local charity of $5 for a 21-day membership. On May 1, it increased to $30 a month, still a meagre fraction of Evolve Fitness’ in-person monthly fee of up to $179.99. Benvie said his virtual sessions are so popular that he expects some clients to stick with the online plan once the gym reopens.

“I think there will be hesitation when people come back in,” he said. “And this change has been coming before the virus. Follow the clues. The digital age is here, and it’s only going to get stronger.”

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