The gym death spiral

The gym business has never been about keeping the regulars happy, but rather courting the indifferent. The Washington Post summed up the situation nicely in an article about gyms and New Year’s Resolutions: “It might seem like kind of a weird business model – a business that succeeds when its customers don’t set foot in the door.”

Even before COVID closures, gyms were reluctant to replace worn out hardware or acquire novel equipment like a reverse hyper machine. In fact, when gyms do spend money, it goes towards attracting the people who won’t come, rather than rewarding the people who do. “Many gyms now have lobbies that are designed to look like hotels and fancy restaurants,” says NPR. “Instead of displaying challenging equipment like weight benches and climbing machines in plain view, gyms will often hide weight rooms and other equipment in the back.”

Then in 2020 governments closed the gyms — in Florida for a few months, in other states for a year or more (because the virus knows what state it’s in). People figured out how to get fit at home, and a gym membership lost its cachet among users and fakers.  

Many clubs are now locked in the gym death spiral: fewer members post-COVID restrictions means less money for upkeep, which leads to more members cancelling their membership.

In fact, I can tell you exactly what this looks like.

Even though I have a premium membership at my current gym (which means only that I get towel service) no towels have been available for the last three months. The sign that sits on the front desk says, “No towels today due to washing machine repairs.” In reality, there are no towels today due to a washing machine in need of repair — or replacement.

For me, the lack of towels is most gross on the exercise bike. When I stop after 30 minutes or so, my bike looks like it was accidentally left outside in the rain. Ordinarily, I can at least wipe up the sweat by grabbing some paper towels. But today at the gym, the paper towel dispenser was also empty. I had no choice but to walk away.

Without the resources to provide towels — cloth or paper — my gym is forcing a nasty scene. Members (or potential members) see that either a pipe has burst directly above my bike, or that somebody’s bodily fluids have dripped everywhere.

I wouldn’t want to be a member here either.

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