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Fitness studios moved outside to stay afloat. Now winter is coming.

Fitness enthusiasts figured out a way to work out together again. So what happens when winter comes?

People on stationary bikes outdoors.
An outdoor SoulCycle class at the Hudson Yards. 
Noam Galai/Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

In the shadow of the Vessel, the sky-scraping copper honeycomb structure in New York City’s Hudson Yards, is a huge tent full of bikes that go nowhere. In the parking lot of the Beverly Center, the famed Los Angeles shopping center, there’s a blocked-off section peppered with treadmills and benches. And this summer, the Southampton Arts Center’s west lawn was transformed into a dance-workout space.

These outdoor gyms are the new normal of group fitness.

Because companies like SoulCycle, Barry’s, and the up-and-coming dance-inspired workout FORWARD__Space haven’t been allowed to reopen in major cities like New York and Los Angeles, those companies (and many others, from CrossFit boxes to local Planets Fitness) brought the workouts outside.

“I feel very safe working out outside,” Anna Lev, a devotee of Forward Space told me. She says her trainers “have created a really safe environment for everyone.”

Before the pandemic, Lev was going to Forward Space classes with Rachel, her favorite teacher, every day. The pandemic put a stop to that. But when Forward Space opened its Southampton outdoor space for the summer, Lev would make the trek from her home in the Rockaways to Southampton every Saturday to take two classes. If she stayed out East, she’d go every day they’re held, Thursday to Monday.

Lev’s devotion and fidelity to Forward Space isn’t unique. Outdoor classes at Barry’s and SoulCycle have been selling out and provide revenue for the companies. Fitness companies, like restaurants and bars, have pivoted to survive, and moving classes outdoors has been a public health strategy to cope with a pandemic that forced everyone into lockdown. Being outside is safer.

But in embracing outdoor exercise, both enthusiasts and the trainers they love found only a temporary relief. In the coming months, temperatures will drop, the weather will sour, and winter will be in full effect. Fitness enthusiasts may have to go back to square one. Boutique fitness studios have to start over, too, figuring out how to make money while their doors still aren’t open. And with all the improvisations and compromises, both sides have to deal with the reality that the future is not in their control.

Why fitness studios have to go outside

People in gym clothes work out in a parking lot.
F45 Training moved its classes outdoors into the parking lot during the coronavirus shutdown.
Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The big motivation behind these outdoor classes is the health of clients.

“Teaching safe and spacious sweat sessions outside has been truly incredible and an absolute gift,” Kristin Sudeikis, the founder of Forward Space, told me. “Being outside certainly provided an element of safety and we also appreciated giving cues during class to look up to the sky, from the sternum up, to take in the sun and the wind … I had intuited that at some point — and this was pre-Covid — that we would create outdoor sweat sessions similar to that of a music festival vibe, and here we are.”

But the moves outside go a bit deeper than that and are more connected to how health policy and lawmakers define “safety.” Back in March, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and California Gov. Gavin Newsom were among the first to put their states in lockdown and shut down gyms, which were seen as high risk because of the lack of social distancing and factors like heavy breathing and lots of shared-surface contact. Now, as we know more about the virus and spread, gyms are reopening or have reopened — many of which had to implement new capacity and social distancing rules.

Going outside, social distancing, eliminating shared equipment, and instituting measures like cleaning and temperature checks are all measures that make clients, according to current research, safer than they would be if fitness studios continued to operate the way they had pre-pandemic.

“We managed to rework the foundations of how we program sessions to adapt everything to body weight,” Lauren Vickers, F45 Training athletics team manager, told me, explaining how the company adapted to taking its exercise programs outside. Those programs usually involved equipment like weights and kettlebells, and cardio equipment like bikes or rowers.

Vickers and the team at F45 pointed out that without consistent, across-the-board rules about outside fitness, they’ve had to work within different restrictions — something they’ve figured out by keeping things simple.

Members can bring their own equipment if they wish to add progressions, but essentially you just need a towel and a water bottle and you’re ready to go,” Vickers told me.

As Vickers told me, the problem for fitness studios is that in major cities like New York and Los Angeles, they still haven’t been given the green light to open. Even though they provide essentially the same fitness service, companies like Forward Space and Barry’s aren’t considered gyms and are often subject to a different set of rules.

The argument is that boutique fitness classes — often taking place in rooms full of sweaty, heavy-breathing people — might present a higher risk of transmission. All the things that make group fitness successful — people gathering, socializing, yelling, being in an enclosed studio — are things that make it high risk.

One notable study from South Korea reported fitness dance classes that infected 112 people over 24 days, and the fear is that something similar could happen in these boutique fitness classes. More recently, 74 people were infected over a week at a Canadian spin studio earlier this month — the studio had followed rules like cutting capacity and distancing bikes but it did not require riders to wear masks.

To curb potential outbreaks, rules regarding fitness studios were adjusted accordingly. For example, while gyms in New York City were allowed to open their doors, New York City’s health department and Mayor Bill de Blasio were given discretion to keep those establishments closed, which they did.

By taking classes outside and maintaining social distancing rules, boutique fitness companies keep their clients safer — research has shown that outdoor transmission risk is lower than indoor — but also can bypass city mandates about indoor fitness classes.

For fitness companies, it’s also provided some much-needed cash.

The health shutdowns across the country gutted the group fitness industry. Companies bled expenses and continued to pay rent. Even in reopening, they aren’t making the same money that they used to because of capacity measures and health directives. Companies like Rowgatta shut down their physical spaces, and Flywheel went out of business. Others like Solidcore laid off more than 90 percent of their staff. SoulCycle also furloughed a majority of its instructors.

Group fitness companies innovated by going online. But online workouts in your living room don’t quite replicate the real-life experience. Outdoor classes are closer to that pre-pandemic workout adventure, and are a revenue stream for studios and companies that can’t yet open.

“Outdoors is definitely a big contributor to the business,” Chris Hudson, chief curriculum lead at Barry’s, told me. “The concept has allowed us to safely offer Barry’s classes in markets such as Los Angeles and Mexico City where our studios remain closed.”

But, as that popular show once said: Winter is coming

People take a yoga class at Pier 16.
Noam Galai/Getty Images

The biggest question among people who aren’t group fitness enthusiasts about group fitness enthusiasts is: Why? Why not just exercise on your own? Why not just bike outside or go to a gym if you want to work out?

“I’d say, to each his or her own,” Lev told me. “Some people only want to work out at home [or at the gym]. I will say that Forward Space is the only thing that has ever gotten me to work out at home. That’s it, that’s the truth.”

As Lev told me, she just doesn’t respond as well to the gym or working out alone. The idea of going back to the gym “bores her to death.” Working out with a group of people motivates her in a way that working out solo doesn’t. And being able to work out outside with her favorite program and with her favorite teachers has been a blessing for her fitness and her mental health.

“Returning to in-person classes has taken away the quarantine isolation cloud for me, so I don’t want to lose that,” she said.

Sarah Luetto, an attorney in Los Angeles, goes to Barry’s outdoor classes as a way to mix up her routine but also as a way to exercise while still keeping her health in mind. Like Lev, she was going to fitness classes multiple times per week, but those classes shifted online during the pandemic. She’s been taking Barry’s classes at the Beverly Center, whose parking area has been outfitted as an “outdoor” Barry’s location with social distancing and cleaning measures implemented.

“I think it’s a good alternative for people like me who are not ready to do indoor [classes] and hope they keep the option available even when studios reopen indoor in the LA area,” she told me. “I like that they clean the room halfway through class and hope that protocol continues. I’m still taking online classes a few days a week, but it has been nice to have the modified studio experience in person and see some of my Barry’s friends in real life.”

The question for Luetto, Lev, and the fitness programs they enjoy is whether these outdoor classes will continue as the weather gets colder and working out outdoors becomes tougher.

Sudeikis said the outdoor Forward Space classes, which ended on September 21, prompted an increase in demand and made her think about offering a “handful” of outdoor classes in New York City. She also mentioned that she’s looking to offer outdoor classes in other cities throughout 2020 and into 2021.

But the main strategy for Sudeikis and Forward Space is investing in more virtual classes. She said they launched new eight- and 24-minute classes and are thinking of ways to expand their virtual offerings like making their live classes more interactive. “We are passionately committed as teachers, creators, coaches, and team members to be doing and creating everything we can right now to keep all moving and dancing for the people’s overall mental, physical, and emotional health,” she said.

Hudson said Barry’s will continue to offer its classes as long as it can. That seems to be good news for Luetto in Los Angeles, where it stays warmer longer. Hudson, like Sudeikis, also mentioned the company’s desire to be innovative and that they will follow the safety rules in each city.

“We strive to offer a premium and safe experience in all our offerings, abiding by all local government mandates,” Hudson said.

The X-factor that will determine the future of group fitness classes is how well the virus is contained. In New York City, flare-ups of the virus have prompted school and business closures in hot spots. Indoor dining is still in a touch-and-go stage. It’s hard to see allowing indoor fitness classes if schools and restaurants — which are considered more essential — still aren’t fully open. On the other side of that equation, people might be reluctant to go back to indoor fitness classes, even if they’re open, until they feel safe.

It’s all a moving target at this point.

“I think every person should decide what their risk is and what they are okay with,” Lev said, explaining that she is trying to be positive about the future of Forward Space. “And I would be okay with going to class. I’m just keeping my fingers crossed that it will be sooner than later. Because there’s nothing like it.”