Harry Evans, personal trainer and owner of HE TRAINS LLC, says it was difficult to find balance at the beginning of the pandemic. He was stripped of his routine, so he started taking things outside.
"I would go down to the lake for a walk or jog, and I thought I can’t be the only person who needs that balance in the morning, so I offered the beach boot camp," says Evans.
The early morning outdoor workout launched its first session in July, with participants getting up with the sun every Monday and Wednesday for the past month to gather and exercise at Bradford Beach.
However, this workout is no relaxing meditation by the waves. Evans is not shy to admit the difficulty of the boot camp, dubbing it a "high-intensity max interval workout." In plain English, Evans says, "We couple two to three different movements to create a cardio complex, and we take short breaks in between movements."
Many people weren’t expecting the challenge. "They were shocked at how much the sand played into the difficulty," Evans notes.
Despite some successes, like many in the industry, the pandemic has required a huge adjustment for Evans. In the beginning, when social distancing seemed like only a temporary reality, many were reticent to go virtual. But as the pandemic drags on, some creative gyms and savvy trainers – like Evans – are not only surviving but getting back to pre-pandemic levels of revenue and, in the process, changing the business of fitness.
In a recent WUWM radio interview, epidemiologist Dr. Joyce Sanchez noted, "Regardless of what the activity is, the gym in of itself, no matter the gym, is going to be a high-risk area to go to" – a fact that has been on the mind of many when considering renewing a gym membership.
Even with the lockdowns lifted, Evans doesn't plan on returning to a gym right away. "The majority of my customers are not comfortable being in the gym," he says.
Instead, Evans has been working outdoors with clients at Concordia’s stairs or on Bradford Beach, in addition to the boot camp. He‘s even conducting virtual training with athletes, professionals, retirees and even serving as the instructor for Zoom-led corporate sessions.
Jordan Murray, another local personal trainer and owner of LivFitMke, says, "I’ve had a few clients that have moved to Panama City and Chicago where, in the past, I would have stopped training them when they move. They’ve been able to do virtual training and stay with me."
However, this isn’t going to mean the death of the gym.
"A mix of in-person and online will be a point of growth (for gyms)," says Timothy Behrens, dean and professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s college of health sciences. "Once we open pandora’s box, we certainly aren’t going to close it. But it won’t be the end of gyms as we know it."
And it doesn’t look like outdoor exercise is a long-term solution either, at least here in Wisconsin for one reason: weather.
"The outdoor sessions are tough around here because you’re hit or miss with the weather," Murray explains. "Consistency is the best thing for clients."
At the beginning of August, Murray started leasing his gym to train one-on-one after concerns from clients and for his wellbeing when leasing from the Blatz Fitness Room.
"I thought the best model would be to rent out an open space with big windows and good airflow where I could control who was touching the equipment, so I could provide the best place possible for clients," he says.
As fall approaches, so does the famously unpredictable and rough Wisconsin winter. Even Evans, who wants to continue the boot camp for a second session, says, "I do foresee myself needing another gym or studio space, at the very least, because I got to have a home for my baby."
But this might be a problem for current participants in his beach boot camp like Nicole Dachs, a mother of three who usually attends group classes at Hot Yoga Milwaukee. She says virtual classes don’t have the same intensity as in-person classes.
"Being in a group setting is really motivating," Dachs says. "It helps hold you to a higher standard, knowing that other people are watching and encouraging you."
For Dachs, the Bootcamp has also been a godsend and given her some much needed time for herself.
"To be able to start my day with Harry’s boot camp is wonderful, and I make it a point to leave the house before the kids even get up. It’s nice to have that time to get away and be outdoors," she notes.
While some will continue home exercise routines, virtual training or other outdoor activities, ready or not, gyms will undoubtedly see more business in the winter.
"It’s important for health clubs to be ready for when the weather gets cold and they get an influx of people," Behrens says.
However we choose to exercise, it is important to exercise. As Behrens says, "The best description I’ve ever heard (of fitness) is if ever there was a magic bullet for every health ailment, it would be physical activity."