exercise
The Preventive Health Issue

Exercise in the COVID Era: The Fitness Industry Enters a ‘New Normal’

Key Takeaways

  • Exercise declined sharply in the days after the pandemic hit.
  • Health outcomes are worse with a lack of exercise.
  • Many people are returning to the gym or creating a hybrid routine of gym and streaming workouts.

If your fitness routine fluctuated over the course of the pandemic, you're certainly not alone. In fact, over two years in, there's now research to prove it.

Globally, many people who relied on exercising outside of their homes were met with new challenges. An observational study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine demonstrated that overall step counts decreased significantly worldwide. The study predicted adverse outcomes for health, using step counts as a litmus test for physical health.

Another study, published in BMC Public Health, showed that the reduced activity level during the pandemic resulted in higher levels of depression and anxiety. As movement went down, negative outcomes went up. In a period of uncertainty, decreasing exercise had real impacts.

When Danger Lurks at the Gym

Jessica Davis, a freelance writer based in Philadelphia, has rheumatoid arthritis. Water aerobics and physical therapy were a regular part of her routine, and she had few alternative exercises that worked for her condition. Before the shutdown, she swam three times a week.

“Going to the pool at the gym was my lifeline,” Davis told Verywell. “At the beginning of the pandemic, I just didn’t do it at all. And I can’t really shift to just going for a walk because my mobility is so limited. I did nothing for a year.”

As a former nurse, Davis knew how important regular exercise was for maintaining joint strength in the face of her autoimmune disease. She called various gyms, offering to come in off-hours in an attempt to get her exercise in safely.

Ultimately, Davis refrained from going to the gym for months, trying home-based routines using Therabands and online chair workouts instead. But even the most dedicated person is prey to inertia.

“I think I would have lost even more function if I hadn’t been doing [at home] stuff,” Davis said. “But I fell into a lot of stuff that everybody does. I’ll watch one more episode of this Netflix show then I’ll do it. Then that time never happens.”

After a year out of the gym, Davis returned for water workouts and rehabilitation in the fall of 2021. Despite her best efforts, she contracted COVID-19 in May 2022, which she thinks happened at the gym.

A Change of Scenery, Not Intention

Davis wasn’t alone in her move to at-home workouts. Terry Browning, CEO and president of fitness company MOSSA, said that people didn’t stop working out in March 2020, but their workouts looked very different. MOSSA develops group fitness classes that are licensed by gyms. They have also offered online workouts since 2018. From his perspective, online fitness platforms benefited from gym closures.

When the gyms closed, you had 180 million people that were shut out of what they might normally do,” Browning said.

Those people "had to do something," he said, which fueled exponential growth in the fitness industry as companies trotted out free trials of streaming workouts.

Fitness apps saw a 50% increase in users between quarter one and quarter two of 2020. Peloton, arguably the success story of the pandemic, grew exponentially, reaching its highest stock price in history in January of 2021.

But with the introduction of vaccines and reduced case counts, people wanted to leave the living room. Pandemic darlings like Peloton felt the return to the gym acutely, and their profits tumbled. But what about other, less expensive at-home workouts? Where are people sweating now?

Terry Browning, MOSSA CEO & President

When the gyms closed, you had 180 million people that were shut out of what they might normally do.

— Terry Browning, MOSSA CEO & President

A Return to the Gym

Browning has observed a robust return to the gym for many, partially because they miss the socialization aspect they miss by working out at home. But for some, the risk of infection is still too significant to walk through the gym doors again.

“There is a portion of the population that has been freaked out by the pandemic and aren’t returning to anything,” Browning said, estimating that 10% of former health club members won’t return to the gym at all after finding comparable workouts at home.

On the flip side, Browning said that the pandemic has emphasized the importance of exercise to a new population.

“For a lot of people, it became more evident that the best enhancement to your immune system is your health and exercise routine,” he said. “Your ability to move and feel better is needed to be less affected by things like COVID and other diseases.”

A New Normal

Browning thinks the gym life post-pandemic looks more like a hybrid model. He noted that most fitness enthusiasts have typically split their time between the gym and at-home exercises like running or weightlifting.

“The pandemic didn’t invent workout videos. They’ve been around since the '70s and Jane Fonda,” Browning said. “Some people stick with it; some aren’t motivated by it; some need a friend or another motivational element.”

As life returns to normal, Browning is noticing people returning to fitness, whether in the gym or at home, because they see the larger benefits, especially regarding mental health and stress reduction.

“I think the mental side is what’s grabbed people’s attention in some ways,” Browning said. “They need to figure out, how do I make myself feel better, quicker? That’s why movement is important—they start to feel less anxious or stressed.”

What This Means For You

Exercise may have taken a steep decline in the days immediately after the pandemic, but now, many people are finding their way back to their routines. Whether you head for the health club or turn on the TV for a streaming workout, increased exercise shows better health outcomes, both physically and mentally. No matter what the activity, consistency and motivation are essential.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Tison GH, Avram R, Kuhar P, et al. Worldwide effect of COVID-19 on physical activity: a descriptive study. Ann Intern Med. 2020;173(9):767-770. doi:10.7326/M20-2665

  2. Puccinelli PJ, da Costa TS, Seffrin A, et al. Reduced level of physical activity during COVID-19 pandemic is associated with depression and anxiety levels: an internet-based survey. BMC Public Health. 2021;21(1):425. doi:10.1186/s12889-021-10684-1