Out-of-work trainers hope gyms can make gains after pandemic

NEW YORK (AP) — During a normal week, fitness instructor Jason Tran would dart among grueling group spin classes, high-intensity interval training sessions at boutique studios in Manhattan and an occasional one-on-one workout with private clients.

But for Tran and the tens of thousands of other New York workers who make up the state’s $3 billion fitness industry, the coronavirus pandemic shut down most of the business in mid-March. The virus forced many workers into long, virtual lines for unemployment insurance and onto Zoom and Instagram to maintain relationships with their clients.

Now, some New York City trainers and instructors say they’re worried the industry won’t be the same when the shutdown eventually lifts and gyms can reopen in one of the globe’s pandemic hot spots. They wonder: Will loyal customers come back? Will they care enough to continue spending money on niche workouts? Will they wait until there is a proven COVID-19 vaccine?

“I’m wondering, how long do people want to work out in their apartments?” said Tran, who was laid off from the spin studio Swerve and the small-group workout gym Fhitting Room. “I feel like people are going to get bored, and they’re going to want something else to do besides body weight workouts on a computer.”

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Tran, a certified fitness instructor for eight years, currently trains people via Zoom from his living room in Harlem. He has accepted donations from generous clients. But so far, that’s not getting him close to the $3,500 in weekly earnings he is used to. His unemployment benefits total about $1,100 per week.

“I would say this could probably last for another two months,” said Tran, 36. “After May, I’m going to be trying to figure out my next hustle.”

The fitness industry had been thriving nationwide prior to the pandemic, analysts say. New York has about 2,100 health clubs and employs more than 86,000 workers, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association.

Before the shutdown, Tamara Jackson taught 26 fitness classes per week at New York Sports Clubs, where she worked for 15 years until she was laid off last month. Now, she’s offering her usual hybrid of Pilates, yoga and athletic conditioning routines via Zoom.

Although she’s thankful to maintain connections with her clients, it’s not quite the same.

“I loved my schedule. I was always busy,” Jackson said. “I love my students. It was a great job.”

She has been subsisting on unemployment benefits after losing $2,000 in biweekly pay at the gym. Jackson owns her Harlem apartment and was able to freeze her mortgage payments for a few months during the pandemic.

“The good thing is, I don’t really have expenses right now, except for food,” she said.

But Jackson worries business overall could suffer as more people look for fitness inspiration on social media platforms, where cost-free personal trainer accounts typically advertise style over substance. She doesn’t want her students to abandon the gym when it’s finally safe to return.

“I think it is unfortunate that there’s so many ‘celebrity’ trainers on social media, because a lot of them look phenomenal but they don’t know what the hell they’re doing,” Jackson said. “These people are not certified and probably aren’t going to help you out a whole lot without injuries.”

The parent company of New York Sports Clubs was the subject of a class action lawsuit for charging membership dues after the governor ordered health clubs to close. The state attorney general announced last week that the company had agreed to refund members charged since the shutdown.

Tom Cove, president and CEO of the Sports & Fitness Industry Association trade group, said he is optimistic that health clubs and fitness professionals can weather the hardship. In addition to physical and social benefits, he said, the gym industry prides itself on offering hygienic spaces to exercise.

“We believe that this is generating a pent-up demand that will come back very strong,” Cove said. “Health clubs are in the health business.”

For Teddy Sanchez, the impact of being laid off from his personal training job at a premium branch of New York Sports Clubs is as much about his personal finances as his mental wellness.

He is collecting unemployment benefits and has kept busy filming instructional workout videos from the kitchen of his Queens apartment and posting them to his personal Instagram account.

“I grew up kind of rough in New York in the ’90s,” Sanchez, 34, said. “The gym taught me patience and prowess. If it wasn’t for heavy barbells, I wouldn’t be as calm or as focused or as successful as I am.”

He added: “I can’t imagine a world without it. I can’t imagine a life without it.”

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