By Michael Angelo S. Murillo, Senior Reporter

WIDELY CONSIDERED a growing industry before the pandemic, fitness centers ground to a halt during the lockdown, with indoor workouts in close proximity to other users deemed a high-risk activity. Gym owners are still hoping for an eventual rebound, but are resigned to the fact that they may have to drastically change their ways.

A market intelligence firm, Ken Research, estimated that the fitness industry in the Philippines was headed for a period of accelerating growth in an outlook over a five-year time horizon ending 2023, driven by growing health consciousness and awareness of chronic problems like obesity and heart disease.

Ken Research found that the industry grew at a compund annual rate of 7% between 2013 and 2018, marked by the opening of a number of fitness centers, with much of the growth attributed to the need to serve the fitness needs of women. Its forward-looking five-year growth forecast was for compound annual growth of 11%.

“The fitness industry in the country was booming, and it was actually a saturated market. We have all sorts of gyms opening up. We have the big international chains like Gold’s Gym and Anytime Fitness opening up. You also have the small studios opening up that focus on boxing, indoor cycling and combat sports like jiu-jitsu and they are all over. There are also the small grit-and-grind gyms,” said Gab Pangalangan, UFC Gym Philippines marketing manager, in an interview.

“You might find that it’s a crowded space, but there is demand for it as everyone is looking to stay fit, especially in the city where the traffic is bad, people are busy in the office, everyone is looking for an outlet. So fitness is something people want to integrate into their daily lives. And gyms help in that not only in the physical aspect but also the mental aspect. It’s a competitive market,” he added.

Then came COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019).

Mr. Pangalangan said industry was not prepared for the pandemic, even though foot traffic started dropping off as early as January, when first reports of the outbreak in China emerged.

Hard-core gym-goers were still coming regularly but Mr. Pangalangan said it semed like “something was on the horizon.”

The fear of going out in public gained momentum in late February and early March, when the first community-transmission cases emerged in the Philippines, forcing the government to declare a public health emergency and a lockdown over Luzon. The measures include the closure of “non-essential” industries, which included gyms.

“The impact was across the board. Some industries are doing better but this pandemic has hit all businesses hard,” said Mr. Pangalangan, who is also a fitness coach and the founder of the combat sports website DojoDrifter.

“The (fitness) industry relies on people to keep it going. It relies on membership sales. It relies on personal training sales. So if there are no people to sell memberships to, there is no revenue. That is a big concern and nobody was really prepared for this. I think no one predicted this happening,” he added.

In the US, major fitness chain Gold’s Gym, which also has branches here, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in May.

It was not closing down but just taking “quick, decisive actions to enable us to get back on track.”

Mr. Pangalangan, whose UFC Gym Philippines is a fitness gym and not a fight facility despite being affiliated with the Ultimate Fighting Championship, said he now believes some “casualties” in the industry are inevitable.

Also feeling the sting of the COVID-19 impact are coaches and trainers, who earn most of their income from one-on-one and group training sessions with clients.

“Definitely the pandemic has had a very significant impact on trainers of all types of programs, both group exercise, and personal trainers. Income has taken a big hit. While some have basic salaries, the bulk of what we take home comes from one-on-one and group training. It’s a very different situation now that we’re no longer meeting people on a daily basis,” said freelance fitness coach Richard Mariano.

Martin Casupanan finds himself in the same boat as the trainers, but with a twist — he also owns a fitness gym.

“We can’t open our gym. There is no flow of income, and it’s tough for us as we rely a lot on what we earn from the gym,” said Mr. Casupanan, owner of Premiere Fitness Gym in Bacoor, Cavite.

In June, the industry saw a glimmer of hope when the government, through the recommendation of the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF), eased the lockdown settings to a more permissive General Community Quarantine (GCQ) — but gyms remained closed, having been classified as low priority among businesses looking to reopen.

Mr. Pangalangan said it’s a struggle to persuade the authorities to let gyms open.

“If people aren’t convinced that gyms are essential and we are viewed as a form of amusement, then that is a big problem for us,” he said.

Mr. Pangalangan said in the event of a reopening for the industry, restoring confidence among gym users is essential — and so is investment in safety measures and sanitizing equipment.

He said when gyms reopen, he expects distancing, masks, and gloves to be standard, alongside capacity limits and temperature checks.

“As an industry, we don’t want to be a cause of a sudden spike in COVID-19 infections,” said Mr. Mariano, whose freelance practice is affiliated with a number of fitness centers.

Mr. Pangalangan said one of the ways his company has been adapting is to stay connected with clients online.

“During this time you can see the importance of going digital. If you did not have a website or any digital resource set up then the pandemic was tough. It’s not just about having these things. You have to learn them too,” he said.

He said UFC Gym’s social media accounts saw an increase in followers, including non-members, following the release of free workout videos.

UFC Gym is also offering paid online and personal training classes so its coaches can earn.

“If people cannot go to the gyms for now, we’ll bring the gym to them,” Mr. Pangalangan said.

Messrs. Mariano and Casupanan are also going online.

“While I don’t see the physical gym totally going away as I am sure there are still people willing to go and train in gyms, the industry nonetheless has to start offering services beyond enclosed concrete walls,” Mr. Mariano said.

“I only recently tried doing an online group workout. I hope things pick up. It’s just some close friends and clients for now. I will try to provide online one-on-one coaching after I have a regular group class,” Mr. Mariano said.

“I’m currently doing online coaching to support my day-to-day needs,” Mr. Casupanan said.

As things remain clouded for the fitness industry with COVID-19 remaining uncontained, Messrs. Pangalangan, Mariano and Casupanan said they remain hopeful of better days ahead, while asserting that fitness services are all the more relevant now after the lockdown denied many gym users access to exercise.

“We feel strongly that the fitness industry is an essential service. Pursuit of fitness and health, physical and mental, is important… We feel strongly that gyms have to open. Of course we respect the decision of the authorities but we are just hoping for consideration and be in the conversation to be allowed back,” Mr. Pangalangan said.

“We are at the mercy of this pandemic. If we get things back to what they were before, then I feel gyms will thrive. People are still looking for that outlet. Going to the gym is part of the lifestyle and part of staying healthy. It’s still good to go to the gym. But that’s an optimistic view. It will take time. It’s going to be a tough spot. But I choose to be optimistic,” he added.

“Another thing that COVID-19 has taught us is everyone should be mindful of their health. And gyms can certainly help them with that,” said Mr. Casupanan.

While waiting for the situation to settle, Mr. Pangalangan said the industry has no option but to take a page from the lessons of physical training — and remain strong.

“It’s not about who saves the fitness industry. We have to come together, communicate, set aside alliances and help the industry. To the gym-goers, stay safe and talk to your coaches and help your gyms in any way you can. We are all in this together.”