Is the microgym the future of post-Covid fitness?

·5-min read
Gym Pod - Gym Pod Facebook
Gym Pod - Gym Pod Facebook

The pandemic cultivated two fitness camps: the gym members desperately craving a return to the treadmill the moment restrictions lifted, and those for whom the prospect of panting in close proximity to others was something never to be repeated. Now, a third way has emerged: microgyms, where users can book a fully kitted-out studio to themselves for an hour, door unlocked via a smartphone app, without a fellow exerciser in sight. Can they reinvent fitness for the post-Covid masses?

It’s worked for Luke Timmins, a head of retail operations who has swapped his two or three weekly workouts at a chain gym with visits to Solo60, a pay-per-hour outfit that opened in October last year. “All of the equipment I can find at leading larger gyms, but with the freedom and comfort of working out at home,” he says. “I have a full gym for myself, no waiting for equipment, [and] no navigating around other people… I know that I can walk through the door and be into a session within moments.”

Solo60 opened its second London studio in June and plans to add a further four in the capital in 2021, before long term expansion plans in Essex, Manchester and Europe. Elysium, which offers the same concept of individual workouts or hiring the space to exercise with a personal trainer or friend, opened last month and will be launching a second site this year.

The trend has been gathering steam overseas too since the pandemic began; there’s BOLD in Chicago, a series of 320 square foot shipping containers filled with weights and exercise machines, and SiloFit in Canada, which opened five mini-studios between September and December last year, with another dozen slated in 2021. In Singapore, the Gym Pod – Asia’s first 24 hour smart container chain – now has 20 sites with different equipment available depending on where you book. The virus “has certainly made people more conscious about their health and taking care of their bodies”, says Peter Lam, its branding director, adding that “the demand to do so in a private and safe environment has also gained more traction”.

Ben Alderton, Solo60’s founder, agrees: “After lockdown the commercial gym model was not very favourable; people didn’t know how [health and safety] was going to be looked after by those chains.” At £25 per hour, Solo60 and Elysium cost the same per hour as most budget gym chains do for a month. But it is worth it for those like Carys Rees, a 33-year-old public health worker. “Covid has made me more mindful of working out in crowded gyms and less likely to book onto classes that I know are generally busier than others,” she says of her four recent visits to Elysium. The concept is similarly popular with personal trainers and their clients, like commercial director Craig Reid, 52, who likes the privacy of being in a secluded workout space. “I felt I didn’t have to worry about others watching me or not being able to access the equipment my trainer needed me to use.”

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Guido Basola, Elysium’s founder, says Covid has changed people’s fitness habits, with “people forced away from their beloved gyms and class spaces and for the first time they took charge of their own fitness”. With external resources gone, many “found online personal trainers or online classes” – and microgyms are primed to bring those sessions to life in a way rudimentary setups at home can’t. “The personalisation is a big part of the appeal,” Timmins, 31, explains, as he has “my own music playing over the audio system and ChromeCast to the TV, [which] also allows me to join more advanced virtual classes with all of the equipment around”.

Much has been made of the pandemic making us all more body conscious, though statistics on exercise and weight gain over the past 18 months vary widely. Since restrictions lifted in May, the return to the gym appears to be in rude health: David Lloyd is back at pre-pandemic membership levels – beating their projection by seven months – while PureGym is at 94 per cent. On ClassPass, an app where users can book sessions at different studios, consumer usage has been at 110 per cent of pre-Covid levels.

Many chains now have apps where you can tell how busy the gym floor or a class is at any one time, a feature designed to ease concerns of the virus-conscious, but Alderton believes smaller, membership-free outfits are likely the future, and that the £5bn UK gym industry may ultimately split in two. “You’re either going to go for quite a premium offering where you want to be on your own, or there’s going to be a budget section,” he says. “The middle market will be very much squeezed out.” The higher price tag won’t much bother those already paying for single classes in boutique studios, which are usually around the £20-per session mark, but whether they balance the founders’ books remains to be seen. Alderton adds that their launch has been welcome among landlords whose Covid-emptied high street spaces are thrilled with the micro-businesses popping up.

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Much of the world is now following a hybrid working model; the fitness landscape could well follow suit – with pay-per-hour gyms a perfect fit for part time office work. Craig Reid plans to use microgyms more as he will only be in the capital part-time now that “my firm has adopted a more ‘working from home’ ethic”; Timmins, meanwhile, plans to vary his training between group and solo pursuits. “I’m comfortable in gyms and classes where you can see the Covid precautions are in place, and that paired with the freedom of Solo60 is an ideal combination for me.”

For microgyms, the pandemic may have been a blessing: many like Timmins are in no hurry to go back to the days of Zoom classes from the living room. “Coming out of lockdowns there was an instant urge to move away from home workouts,” while Basola agrees that “sitting at home for months [has] helped build the foundations” of the trend that is gathering pace. “Gyms and exercise for the longest time have played second and third fiddle to a busy work schedule and an even busier social planner. Now more than ever, hopefully the world will stick to their newfound regimes, building a fitter tomorrow.”

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