Connecticut gyms buzzing again amid changing fitness landscape

Photo of Ginny Monk

As students trickle into the room for a yoga class, one hesitantly asks the instructor if he is Pauli.

“I am,” he replies.

“I think we met on Zoom,” she says.

They chat for a few minutes before class begins.

The eight students at mActivity’s Thursday evening yoga class walk past a few people on their laptops in the cafe. The workout space buzzes with activity, and as the class starts, the rattle of a punching bag’s chain and the mechanical whir of exercise machines filter into the group classroom.

The scene is relatively fresh for the New Haven gym. Pauli Mongillo, the instructor, said his class sizes have doubled compared to earlier this year. Owner Burch Valldejuli said membership is starting to pick up after significant drops early in the pandemic.

Valldejuli was not the only one who endured a difficult time during the pandemic.

Gyms in Connecticut faced closures as well as capacity limitations early in the pandemic. A recent report from the Global Health and Fitness Association estimated that nationwide, 22 percent of gyms and studios — roughly 9,100 facilities — had closed permanently because of COVID-19.

As restrictions have lifted, membership has started to tick up, the report says.

“I guess we think the good news in this is that people are returning to exercise and they are choosing clubs as part of that,” said Helen Durkin, the trade association’s executive vice president for public policy.

For some Connecticut residents, that means combining workout habits they picked up the past two years with pre-pandemic patterns. For others, it means a full return to the gym, and those that are offering creative options such as virtual and in-person courses are seeing higher numbers of returning members than others, experts in the field said.

Mongillo’s class last week was available both in-person and virtually. Before the session started, he began recording on a laptop to his left while the in-person students sat on mats in front of him.

“It’s quasi-interactive,” Valldejuli said of virtual courses. “But there’s nothing like going to the gym and seeing your gym buddies, really working with a personal trainer. People are really thrilled to be back, the ones that are coming back are thrilled.”

By the time mActivity reopened in June 2020, the fitness club had lost two-thirds of its membership. Now, the gym is up to about 60 percent of its pre-pandemic membership, Valldejuli said.

Planet Fitness is also seeing gains in membership. The gym company saw “historically unseasonable membership growth,” in the July-August-September quarter, and more members are visiting with increased frequency, a spokesperson said.

Planet Fitness did not respond to a request to provide numbers on its growth.

People came back into team sports more quickly than gyms, said Tom Cove, president and chief executive officer of the Sports and Fitness Industry Association.

“Nobody really knows, but we have some pretty good indications,” Cove said of the bounce-back. “One indication is people have come back into team sports very fast, very effectively. With fitness clubs, we believe it's going to be slower, but very robust.”

Work from home has changed fitness routines. In the past, people may have selected their gyms based on the proximity to their work, Cove said. Now, many are working from home at least a couple of days per week and it’s less convenient to get to the gym.

But, he added, his group predicts gyms that have made it this far into the pandemic will likely survive.

Michele Smallidge, director of the University of New Haven’s exercise science program, said she’s hopeful after the pandemic that people will combine various types of fitness programs for a more holistic approach to health.

People are also interested in a more personalized approach, so any measures that allow them to adjust workout routines to their schedules or personal preferences tend to be popular, Smallidge added.

“Now I think that people are looking at the holistic approach,” she said. “They’re looking at their personal fitness, they’re looking at their emotional health.”

Outdoor forms of fitness routines grew in popularity during the pandemic. Many of them may stick around, particularly those that required people to buy equipment to participate, Cove said.

Blake Bergeron, who lives in New Haven, has been swimming in pools since he was a kid. When gyms closed during the pandemic, he and some swimming buddies sought a way to continue their favorite form of exercise.

So they started swimming in the Long Island Sound, out of a private beach near one member’s home in Branford. Almost every day, a core group of six or seven people would push the waves in pursuit of completing their morning swim. They’d also encounter wildlife, and more than one got stung by jellyfish, he said.

As it got colder, they persevered, and kept swimming through the winter months. And Bergeron said he now prefers swimming in the Sound than a pool.

“It’s surprising how much we’re able to acclimate to the cold water, especially if it’s a consistent practice,” Bergeron said.

He said the social aspect is one of the things he enjoys most about the morning swims. On the weekends, the group can get to be upwards of 20 people, he added.

Many exercisers simply enjoy socializing or need the group to push them during their workout, Durkin said.

“They really are sick of doing it by themselves,” she added.

For the yoga-goers, mActivity’s Mongillo said he’s seen that people enjoy the social aspect, although in some instances, they may be able to more fully immerse themselves in the practice if they’re not distracted. He’s seeing fewer online students each week, and teaches at a couple of studios where in-person attendance is up.

“There’s going to be an ebb and flow,” he said. “We’re mindful of that.”