Marcia Mahoney has been a member of the Lansing YMCA for five years and faithfully works out at the Westside location three times a week.
So when COVID-19 arrived, she had to get creative.
During the peak of the pandemic, Mahoney kept up with her fitness routine by cycling outdoors and using the calisthenic equipment at Sharp Park in Waverly. Still, when the YMCA reopened last year, she was glad to be back.
“I just like being around people,” she said. “I work out better when I’m around people.”
Gyms were among the businesses hardest-hit by the pandemic, due in part to members who invested in at-home equipment or learned to exercise in isolation — some for good. And while many, like Mahoney, are eagerly returning to gyms, many locations still aren’t seeing the membership numbers they did before March 2020.
Sweating it out with support
For some who have returned in person to gyms, the decision was based on atmosphere and camaraderie as much as equipment.
“If they were able to buy specific equipment and explore other options, I do believe there’s a segment of people who made that transition,” said Casey Thompson, president and CEO of YMCA of Metropolitan Lansing. “But some people tried to work out at home. They bought the treadmill. They bought the Peloton bike, but what they really missed is that camaraderie and that community.”
Firefly Hot Yoga Barre studio in downtown Lansing has noticed similar trends.
“We’re starting to see a lot more people come out, and new people that have never even tried yoga,” said owner Abbey Weston. “I think there’s a lot of people really struggling with mental health, and it’s nice to have the support of a community…just being able to share space with a stranger, or a stranger that becomes my friend and support system.”
For some members, virtual options not the same
The YMCA didn’t offer any virtual programs prior to the pandemic, but instructors quickly created an online video library to help members take fitness classes at home.
That library still exists, but fewer people are using it now. The YMCA also isn’t adding new content.
“What we found talking to members is some of them utilizing it, but they were ready to come back and be actually in the class with the instructors that they loved,” Thompson said. “For many of our folks, it wasn’t about fitness. It was about being engaged, being with their friends and the Y being part of their family.”
Firefly also jumped into virtual classes and, although that worked for a time, Weston said offering something in-person was important for her community. So, for the past two summers, the studio found a way to offer outdoor classes.
“That was a really great option for people who were still hesitant to come back into the studio even after we were open,” she said. “But people were so grateful to be in class…it’s the energy exchange, you just can’t do that at home.”
New perspectives on health and wellness
Right now, people coming to the gym have a wide range of goals, Thompson said. There are those who’ve kept up their fitness routines during the past two years and are ready to pick up where they left off, and others who haven’t been physically active and need to build back their endurance.
There’s also a large group of people who are new to having a fitness routine.
“They have a new thought on health and wellness after having to live through a pandemic,” she said. “So they’re coming in for the first time trying to get information and seeing what sort of offering the YMCA has.”
After two years of not being active, Maddi Meredith and Antione Hall joined the YMCA together.
“We were really just sitting around the house playing video games, watching movies,” Hall said. “We just want to get active, because it’s been a while.”
Meredith said that joining the gym wasn’t just about developing a fitness routine, but about finding new ways to spend time together.
“We wanted to have a goal with each other,” Meredith said.
Peak times and shifting schedules
Although many people are eager to get back to the gym, peak hours have shifted over the last few years. Things are gradually returning to the more traditional hours — before and after work — but Thompson has noticed a difference in the distribution of foot traffic at the YMCA.
“We have a little bit of a morning rush, but not as early as what it used to be,” Thompson said.
The first demographic to return to their regular schedules were seniors, Thompson said.
“Some of them have been dealing with social isolation,” she said. “They’ve been homebound…so our senior classes are going extremely strong.”
Basketball has drawn plenty of middle and high school students back to the YMCA as well.
“There’s really been a lack of court access to be able to play basketball in the community,” Thompson said. “We have a lot of teens that like to come in and specifically shoot hoops.”
Still, it’s been a trick rather than a rush.
“Month over month, we’re getting a little bit more traffic in the building,” Thompson said.
Firefly is only doing about 50% of the business it was before the pandemic, partially due to the way people’s schedules have changed.
“Before we had people downtown, and they could just walk over at lunch, or they’re already going to work, so they’d do their workout in the morning and then go to work,” Weston said. “So that half of our base is kind of gone.”
A long journey back
Firefly’s downtown location puts the studio in a difficult situation, Weston said. Some of her previous clients aren’t coming back downtown because they feel it’s too much of a hassle, especially to park.
“It’d be one thing if we had access to free parking, but that’s not the case…people aren’t going to [pay for parking] when they have no reason to be downtown,” she said. “If we could do something to alleviate the parking fiasco…maybe we could get more people to come down there.”
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She’s hopeful that as everyone — including downtown dwellers — finds a new normal, people will return to the studio regularly.
“Downtown is going to look different in the next couple of years,” she said. “And things are trending up.”
Staffing is one of the largest challenges the YMCA is facing. Although there’s demand for more family swim hours and additional classes, there’s not the staff to keep them running.
“As soon as we can scale more staff, that means we can have more amenities in the facility, more program offerings,” Thompson said. “Although this is taking a lot longer than we would have anticipated, we’re committed to keeping this as a priority for us.”
Thompson expects it will take anywhere between three and five years for the YMCA to fully recover from the effects of the pandemic.
“Month over month we’re seeing more usage, more sales, more people coming in, but I really believe this is going to be a three- to five-year recovery plan for the YMCA, not only to recover back to the membership units we were at but to get back to where we were revenue-wise and to get fully scaled up.”
Contact reporter Elena Durnbaugh at (517) 231-9501 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @ElenaDurnbaugh.