How health and fitness are emerging from the pandemic


Tara Ryan Nowak and Jared Boyle, from left, Ashlie Montana Zeidler and Tim Buchholz

Tara Ryan Nowak had reason to celebrate last March, though that was also paired with some apprehension. On March 16 she passed her certification test to be a personal trainer. The former owner of Sweet Lola’s downtown had completed her transformation from cupcake baker into a certified fitness professional who completes in figure bodybuilding competitions. 

The transformation wasn’t easy. She’d been unhappy with the weight she’d gained, understandable considering she worked in a bakery that she owned. One day, she’d had enough and after some research found personal trainer Jared Boyle. She was stressed, had no energy and felt like life was getting away from her. It was impacting her marriage and her business. “I looked at him and said “I will do whatever you want me to do,” Nowak told City Pages she said to Boyle. “I can’t feel like this anymore.” 

She did. Nowak changed her lifestyle, and for six months she didn’t touch a single piece of bakery at Sweet Lola’s. She even accepted a role judging cupcakes and tasted each one, spitting it out when she was done. To say she was dedicated is an understatement. 

Today, Nowak is a figure competitor, which involves a lot of body building and dropping body fat percentages to extremely low levels. 

But she also had a front-row seat to the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the fitness industry. She took the test for her certification on March 16; on March 25 Gov. Tony Evers issued a Safer at Home order that shut down most businesses, including gyms. 

Nowak today works as a personal trainer with Boyle. They, like many in the fitness and wellness industry, have made adjustments in the wake of the pandemic. 

What impact has COVID-19 had on the fitness and wellness industry, both from those who provide services and those who partake of those services? We talk to several people in the industry, as well as look at the data, to find out answers to those questions. 

But one thing is certain -— health and wellness will look different post-pandemic than it did before any of this started. 

Turning off Netflix 

Although Tim Buchholz and Anna Nummelin aren’t exactly typical athletes — they’re part of an adventure racing team that has placed No. 1 nationally in their sport — their motivation is similar to many weekend warrior athletes. Having a schedule of races throughout the year always provided plenty of motivation to train. 

But of course, as COVID-19 reared its annoying, pointy head (at least according to all those illustrations we’ve seen of it), races started to be canceled left and right. And at first, no one knew quite what to do. “It was a disappointment for us,” Buchholz told City Pages. “It made it a struggle to keep our training up. We had to be more diligent in setting up our training plans.”

Seeing one of their main competitors ace them in a three-hour race was a wake-up call, Nummelin told City Pages. “With all the races on the race calendar gone, it left us wondering what to do,” Nummelin says. “A lot of it was just getting outside for our mental health.” 

And, like most people, Buchholz says, the first couple of weeks involved a lot of Netflix. But ultimately they realized that wasn’t sustainable and that this pandemic was going to stick around for a while. 

Eventually it led to Tim and Anna essentially making their own races and adventures. That might mean planning a ten-hour day by dropping their bikes at the end of a river, paddling down to get the bikes, then running back to the car. Again, they’re not your typical athletes, though many created their own events (including this author, who made his own “briathlons” — but anyway…) 

While the outdoors were always there for them, like many athletes they missed the social aspects of the sport. Being around other people in the shared cause was a big part of the appeal of doing their beloved sport, and that’s hard to mimic with a self-created event for just the two of them. 

Luckily for them, many races are coming back on the calendar in the adventure racing scene. Buchholz points out that adventure racing tends to be a pretty socially distanced sport already — racers or race teams often go hours without seeing other racers or teams on the course, since they don’t follow a specific course but rather checkpoints. It’s sort of a natural fit for a pandemic, and now race directors have figured out how to hold them safely (contactless race packet pickup, staggered start times, etc). 

Not so easy to socially distance is yoga. It tends to be done in smaller, hot studio spaces and is probably the exact opposite of a shared activity you would want in a pandemic that involves an airborne disease. 

401 Flow Yoga closed like many businesses in the early days of the pandemic. It wasn’t long after that their customers started asking about online classes, and so the studio started offering virtual classes for the first time, says Ashlie Montana Zeidler, one of the studio’s owners. 

“It was a supply and demand thing,” Zeidler told City Pages. “It’s what our community was asking for, and it’s how we could serve them in that time.” 

None of them particularly loved teaching classes virtually, but initially there was a lot of excitement for it. But that excitement began to wane as many found the accountability aspect difficult without a real-life person to show up for. “We rely on the atmosphere of accountability in the studio with physical presence,” Zeidler says. Virtual “is a whole other ballgame.” 

401 Flow Yoga filmed classes until December, when they closed their studio in the Third Street Lifestyle Center (otherwise known as Washington Square). It was getting too expensive and teaching online classes burned them out fast, Zeidler says. They plan to reopen a physical studio eventually, in a new location. But those plans right now depend a lot on the pandemic and its progression, and finding the right space. 

Gentle Strength.jpg

Courtesy YMCA

Seniors take part in the gentle strength class at the YMCA.

At the YMCA, The Landing has remained closed, but seniors have stuck with the organization more than any other population as the Y went virtual for many of its programs, says The Landing Director Kate Florek. The Y has six exercise programs at the downtown branch and seven through the Weston branch, Florek told City Pages. “They’re both popular.” Other programs have included book clubs, coffee hour presentations, bible study and even a presentation from REGI about raptors. 

That’s meant seniors have had to adapt to technologies they might not initially have been familiar with, including learning how to use Zoom (which, let’s face it, can be a little tricky sometimes even for technology-literate folks). 

One thing that has changed since the start of the pandemic has been attendance for their lunch and soup programs. “Early in the pandemic almost no one came,” Florek told City Pages. Now, they typically have 8-10 people per week volunteering. Social isolation is an issue for seniors during normal times, Florek says, and it became only more exacerbated during the pandemic. 

With seniors getting vaccinated, there has been a growing interest in coming back to The Landing in person. Many are taking advantage of the Y’s facilities, which are not closed but require masks at all times. Most classes are operating in person but with limited class sizes, masks and spacing. 

Meanwhile, The Landing shifted many activities to the outdoors and Florek expects that will continue this year once the weather warms up. 

And with the Y itself, Communications Director Carrie Hutton told City Pages it’s not clear what changes will revert as the pandemic recedes but she thinks a lot of things like the new cleaning protocols and grabbing some sanitizer before walking into a class will probably stick around. Easing limited class sizes and changing equipment layout might happen when the pandemic starts to become a thing of the past.   

Post pandemic 

That COVID-19 kicked up demand for virtual classes is probably not surprising, though perhaps the degree is. Data from the Mindbody app — the one-stop-shop that allows users to sign up for classes at yoga and other fitness studios — shared some interesting data about how users are adapting and changing in the pandemic.

In 2019, for instance, only 7% of its users took virtual classes; that jumped to 85% in 2020. And that’s expected to stick around. According to the app, 46% of its users surveyed told Mindbody they plan to keep using virtual classes even after studios return to offering full, in-person classes. 

That also led to users trying out new studios. A barrier to entry for people looking to start a new fitness program can often be some degree of intimidation – entering a brand new environment can be scary. But with virtual classes, 40% of those surveyed said they tried out a class at a studio that was completely new to them in 2020. 

Has the pandemic led to people working out more, or less? Although it’s not definitive, there is a lot of evidence pointing to increases in exercise activity overall. A total of 56% of Mindbody users told the app they were working out more in 2020 than in 2019. 

Though there is always the possibility of self-reporting bias — people in general aren’t always great at assessing themselves — other data also suggests the same. Data from the app Strava showed people rode bicycles at a far greater rate in 2020 than they did in 2019. 

And, according to a Pew Research study, 84% of those surveyed said they were spending more time outside than in 2019, on either a weekly or daily basis. And 64% said they were exercising regularly on a weekly or daily basis. 

Buchholz says that newfound love of the outdoors has translated to adventure racing — there has been a great influx of people into the sport since the pandemic began, Buchholz says. Nummelin adds that a lot of families are getting into the sport, since that’s the pod they’re already comfortable with and usually living with, minimizing the fear of COVID-19 transmission. 

The demand is strong for a return to in-person events as virtual fatigue is starting to set in, Nummelin says, but some aspects of the COVID-19 inspired changes might stay, she says. Contactless pickups of race bibs and other race materials, for example. 

Many races will probably remain virtual for this year, Buchholz says. And smaller events will probably have limited fields. Buchholz and Nummelin’s own Rib Mountain Adventure Race is doing that, for instance. 

Zeidler, for one, is bearish on virtual classes. While there will likely be a new component of virtual classes that many studios will employ and that some people will want, there is still a strong value in face-to-face contact with teachers. 

“There will be some people who will never go back to an in-person studio,” Zeidler says. “But at least they found a way to make the practice serve them. That’s the whole point.” 

Zeidler says when 401 Flow Yoga reopens, she expects it will be almost like opening a brand new studio — they have a core group of yogis who have been with them from back when the studio was called Community Soul Yoga, but they expect an almost whole new crowd in the new environment. “There was a little bit of a vibe shift, and that’s OK,” Zeidler told City Pages. “I expect that to happen again.” 

For Nowak and Boyle, a shift had already been taking place that turned out to be fortuitous in the age of COVID-19. Boyle had already begun shifting his focus to online coaching, and so his business was well set up for success during COVID-19. Now Nowak is a trainer with him at Be Bold Personal Training.

It meant a shift in the way they trained clients. With gyms closed, they had to get creative with different types of workouts designed around bands, weights around the house or making them out of household items, and of course bodyweight exercises. “I’m super proud to say we had great success with that,” Nowak says. 

They’re also assisted by an app they use which allows them to put video, workout plans, meal plans and advice all in one spot for their clients. Boyle told City Pages that using online training has allowed them a better connection with their clients, which might surprise some — their clients can reach out with questions any time, versus saving it for the training sessions where they might forget to ask, or be so focused on their workout they don’t retain the answer. And, it’s in writing so they can always look at it again if they forget. 

Interestingly enough, not only did clients not train less, some of them actually overtrained. Nowak was concerned herself about not getting enough training with the gyms closed, and some of her clients trained to the point where they had to take a rest. 

If the pandemic has shown anything, it’s that people will find a way to stay active no matter the circumstances, and it might have given some people the time and space to care for themselves more. 

It also seems clear the future of fitness will look a little different than it did before the pandemic started. And that might not be a bad thing.