Before the COVID pandemic, Roger Salazar of League City regularly could be spotted in the gym running on the treadmill, pushing weights or punching a heavy bag.

But when COVID-19 hit, the gyms closed and Salazar, a runner, was forced to change how he exercised. So he bought some resistance bands and increased his outdoor activities.

Eighteen months later, Salazar still hasn’t returned to the gym even though most have long since reopened.

“I’m really happy with using the resistance bands at home and what few dumbbells I have,” he said.

The closure of gyms and other fitness facilities in March 2020, in the early days of the pandemic, changed how people exercised. And although some people have since gone back to the gym, not everyone has.

While their exiled members looked for new ways to fight pandemic pudge, many fitness centers faced financial difficulties, and some have struggled to reopen as they compete with home gyms and online instruction that often can be found for free.

STRUGGLING TO SURVIVE

Sundance Yoga instructor Valerie Immore was one of the small business owners who took a huge hit from the pandemic. Although her studios in Friendswood and Pearland still are open, they’re bringing in only enough money to pay the instructors and cover the cost of keeping the doors open, Immore said.

“It’s been financially devastating,” she said.

To cope with temporarily closing the studios last year, Immore began offering online classes, but the turnout was low. And even since reopening, class sizes have been down, she said.

Part of that might be because yoga was seen as nonessential during the pandemic, and those who were struggling financially might not have had the extra income to attend classes, Immore said. Another reason is the influx of free online options, like yoga classes on YouTube, she said. This has led to studios like Immore’s increasing their advertising to compete.

“We’ve all bumped up our social media and advertising because everybody has a choice in their living room right now,” she said.

EXERCISING AT HOME

The increased availability of exercise equipment has undercut more than just the yoga industry. During the first month of the pandemic, fitness equipment sales rose 130 percent. Sales of weight benches, free weights, stationary bikes and yoga mats all increased at least 146 percent from the previous year, according to The NPD Group, which collects data on consumer trends.

Increased demand for home exercise equipment was a boon for Jose Valdes, owner of USA Fitness Equipment Depot, a refurbished exercise equipment store in Dickinson. His sales jumped from $1 million in 2019 to $2.6 million in 2020 as customers got pumped up about buying exercise equipment, Valdes said.

“We blew up our business,” he said.

The increase in at-home gyms is a trend Harrell Jackson, owner of Heavenly Bodies, has noticed as well. Jackson is a personal trainer from La Marque who holds small group classes.

“I think everybody has a home gym now,” he said.

Jackson also has seen an increase in marketing for home gym equipment. He attributed the increased interest to the extra weight people put on during the pandemic.

“This pandemic made them feel like what it feels like to not move and just eat,” he said.

CONTINUING TO THRIVE

But not all fitness facilities have seen lasting damage from at-home workouts.

Cass Gibson, owner of Moonlight Yoga in League City, has started to see her classes fill back up again, she said. Like many other studios, Gibson switched to online classes when studios shut down. Since then, she has reopened and seen students trickle back in, although she still isn’t back at her pre-pandemic capacity, she said.

“It was touch and go for a while,” she said.

Jackson also has seen an increased interest in his fitness classes as people work to burn off the weight they put on from staying at home.

MOVING FORWARD

Despite the success of online workouts, there are differences between working out at home and attending a class, Gibson said. One difference is the individualized attention, she said.

There also is less camaraderie at home, which is something that some people miss. And then there are those who miss the wide range of equipment options gyms offer.

Salazar misses using the treadmills for hill workouts and pounding a punching bag. Despite that, he plans to continue with his home workouts as COVID cases rise again with the more contagious delta variant.

“As long as there are people out there that are not vaccinated, I’m not going to the gym,” he said.

Emma Collins: 409-683-5230; emma.collins@galvnews.com.

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