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'The New Normal' For UK Boutique Fitness Studios

28th August 2020

28th August 2020

By Robyn Schaffer

Last year, the global fitness industry was valued at nearly $100 billion (£76 billion). And within this, boutique fitness was found to be one of the fastest growing categories, according to Business Insider. Between 2013 and 2017 alone, membership at boutique studios grew by a stratospheric 121% and, according to Savills, 29 new studios opened last year in London alone. As far as the eye could see, all signs for boutique fitness were pointing towards continued growth and success.

And then, the coronavirus happened. As international lockdowns were put into place across the globe, this thriving area of an already rapidly growing industry came to a sudden halt. As studios closed and classes stopped, businesses were forced into survival mode. Unlike the big fitness franchises and without the backing of the big corporations behind them, smaller, independent businesses were left out on a limb. 

However, in a modern fitness industry that’s demonstrating previously unseen levels of creativity and imagination, not all hope was lost. From taking classes online to reopening studios with new safety measures in place, the pandemic presented an unexpected opportunity for boutique fitness studios to rise to a new challenge. And that they did.

“Lockdown was a tough time for all studios,” says David Kingsbury, founder of OPUS Fitness in Notting Hill, London. “However, I think that boutique studios have, on the whole, been able to manage the reopening process a lot easier than some of the bigger studios and the chains. Because we have such small classes and you have to pre-book, we know exactly who is coming in and out every single hour.”

OPUS has been open now since 25th July, when gyms in the UK were officially given the green light to get back to business. With a hand-washing station upon entry, staggered class times, no sharing of equipment, and a maximum class size of eight, studios like OPUS have had to completely rethink how they operate at every level. But what does this mean when boutique fitness studios rely on a USP of being intimate, close-knit communities that allow customers to feel more at ease and comfort than a regular gym?

“We’ve tried not to be too clinical about it,” Kingsbury says. “Our guests have a minimum of a metre and a half of space already in classes, and everything is very spaced out. We pride ourselves on knowing the names of everyone who comes through the door and building relationships with them, so 99.9% of people who come in are absolutely happy with the cleanliness and the safety. It’s been really well communicated and that’s really important.”

Similarly, at
F45’s Tottenham Court Road branch, serious measures have been taken to keep customers safe and happy. Class capacity has been reduced to half (18 people), guests get temperature checks and have to sanitise their hands on entry, there are screens in reception, masks and visors are worn by trainers and staff, and deep cleaning takes place multiple times a day. 

Mike Chapman, who co-owns the studio with his partner Amy Costello, says: “We normally move around during class, but now there’s tape on the floors so you have your own box that you stay in for the whole class and you have all your equipment in there. We can’t provide water or towels anymore and the changing rooms are limited to three or four people at a time. We all just want things to go back to normal, but we’ve got to play by the rules.”

Another studio going above and beyond is BLOK, who have locations in both London and Manchester. 
Like F45 TCR and OPUS, BLOK are ensuring every stage of the customer journey is as safe as possible. In addition to hand sanitiser, staggered class times, staff in masks and closed changing rooms (for now), BLOK also have a Track and Trace system in place, while classes have been re-designed to enable social distancing. Class attendees even have their own personal sanitising stations.

"We’ve been really really diligent," says Aaliyah Moreno, BLOK's Head of Operations. "And we’ve had really good feedback from customers about it. We’ve taken our own measures and we’re not just following what everyone else has done. In addition to the government, we’re following the World Health Organisation's (WHO) advice, so we’re covering all bases because our first and foremost priority is the care of our community."

Making the digital leap

But despite unusual new rules and restrictions, studios have nonetheless found a way to stay afloat in even the most uncertain of times. As has been the case in many other industries, the transition to digital platforms over lockdown was imperative, not just in order for studios to survive financially, but also to keep customers active and achieving their personal fitness goals.

F45 Tottenham Court Road is one of the many studios that continued to do online classes throughout lockdown, providing them at a discounted price to regular membership. “It was definitely super weird to coach through Zoom, especially with all the glitches and technical issues,” Chapman says. “We started online classes the week before lockdown because we started to get a lot of people suspending their memberships. We did one class a day live in the morning, and for those who couldn’t join live, we made it available on demand.”

OPUS, on the other hand, had launched an online platform last summer, but “it was very much Phase One” Kingsbury says. “We didn’t really push it that hard, but lockdown absolutely accelerated our approach to it.” Suddenly, OPUS was providing around 25 online classes a week, made up of both live and pre-recorded sessions. Although the studio is now open again, it’s still providing around six online classes a week. “We knew it would work,” Kingsbury says. “But we didn’t think it would work on this scale. So it’s definitely something we’ll carry on with.”

BLOK were also "already planning on launching a digital platform", says Soraya Smethurst, BLOK's Head of Sales and Marketing. BLOK TV took off in unprecedented ways, resulting in BLOK now having customers in 134 countries. "We had a lot of it in place already," Smethurst continues. "In many ways, the gyms being shut allowed us to just do it a lot quicker. The digital strategy was always about keeping the community as engaged as possible. People get used to doing their regular classes with their regular trainers and it’s nice to keep that going."

Keeping the community alive

But providing online classes went far beyond being purely a financial lifeline or a way of retaining customer interest - they kept the community feel that boutique fitness studios rely on alive. For OPUS, taking the digital plunge has enabled them to stay connected to clients more than ever before. “We have a lot of clients who have second homes, whether in the UK or abroad,” Kingsbury says. “These people also tend to be our PT clients who we see more often. Normally, they’ll go away for the whole summer and we won’t see them. But now, it’s enabled us to stay connected to them and train with them throughout the summer.”

Some clients even took matters into their own hands. At F45, Chapman says: “We had a private Facebook group for everyone who continued a membership with us over lockdown. We’d do daily challenges and just have general chit chat and banter. I know some members even organised drinks over House Party or Zoom on the weekends, which was really nice to see.”

However, customer loyalty also manifested itself in other ways. Despite many memberships being paused for the foreseeable future, Chapman says other clients continued paying their full memberships over lockdown “to show their support for the studio, even though they weren’t using them”.

Evidently, the effort spent cultivating communities in these studios paid off. At OPUS, clients also found ways to go to great lengths to show support. Kingsbury says: “The Monday before lockdown, we loaded up a van and hired out our reformers and equipment to our PT clients to use at home. It enabled us to close instantly but still continue business.” Kingsbury says, however, it was also a matter of maintaining the standard they’ve always worked so hard to provide. “When you’re a premium service, you can’t just go from offering luxurious facilities with top notch equipment, to saying to people: ‘We’ll carry on the PT at home but just with a yoga mat and bottle of water.’ We had to keep up that standard.”

Initiatives like this, in addition to running the online classes and generosity from clients, have also meant that studios have been able to properly support their staff since lockdown. “From day one, we were adamant about making sure our trainers were paid and supported, and that we were upholding our brand values,” Kingsbury says. Similarly at F45 and BLOK, staff have been fully supported and the community shows no signs of losing hope.

For now, the fitness industry must continue to look to the future. “Not knowing has been the hardest part,” Kingsbury says. “We’re a very target-driven business, in the sense that we set ourselves stretch goals of what we want to achieve. It’s difficult to operate that way when everything’s been so up in the air. But things could be worse. We’ve got a supportive team and client base, so we have to take it for what it is and just crack on.”

To keep up to date with everything going on at F45 TCR, BLOK and OPUS, make sure to follow them @f45_tottenhamcourtroad, @bloklondon and @opusfitness. And if you'd like to support BLOK by helping them grow their global digital platform, be sure to check out their Crowdcube page here.

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From the Bedroom to the Gym: Is Your Sex Life Affecting Your Workout Performance?
The relationship between sex and workout performance is one that’s long been debated by scientists and fitness fanatics alike. It’s complicated and multifaceted, so answering the question of whether your sex life is affecting your training is difficult. That said, today we’re going to take a look at a variety of evidence, both academic and anecdotal, as well as several different scenarios and at least try to reduce some of the mystery around the subject. First, it helps to understand what’s actually happening to the body, both physically and psychologically, during both activities.   The Effects of Sex on the Body Sexual activity causes several changes to occur in the body:   Physical Changes That Occur During Sex During sexual activity and the lead up to it, the human body undergoes a process known as the sexual response cycle. This is the case for both males and females, though the cycle can be highly individual and may not be the same each time for each person. Describing the full sexual response cycle is beyond the scope of this article, however it consists of 4 phases: Desire Arousal Orgasm Resolution Factors such as elevated heart rate, increased blood flow and pressure and heightened muscle tension all come into play. If you’d like to read about the sexual response cycle in more detail, check out this great article from Cleveland Clinic.   Psychological Changes That Occur During Sex Several psychological changes occur both during and after sex. Most notable are the release of endorphins and oxytocin, which are associated with improved mood and a better sense of wellbeing. These are also responsible for reduced stress levels, which brings a multitude of additional benefits that are of particular interest to those of us participating in regular training and exercise. Cortisol, the hormone responsible for stress, is catabolic in high levels, meaning it can cause the breakdown of lean tissue. So, whilst it is unclear whether sex itself affects workout performance, the reduction in stress levels it may bring is definitely beneficial for preserving our results!   The Effects of Exercise and Training on the Body Exercise and training also cause the body to undergo a number of changes. These occur both during and after the physical activity. There are in fact a number of similarities in changes that happen during exercise and sex:   Physical Changes That Occur During Exercise The physical changes that happen in the body vary based on the type of exercise being undertaken, however, there are some that are common to exercise in general: Increased heart rate Increased blood flow, especially to the muscles Faster, deeper breathing due to additional oxygen needs Heightened activity within the circulatory, respiratory, musculoskeletal and endocrine systems A full summary of the changes that occur within these systems can be found here. More aerobically demanding exercise will, of course, place greater emphasis on the circulatory and respiratory systems as well as causing fat to be metabolised as an energy source. Resistance training, which often relies more heavily on the lactate and creatine phosphate energy systems, instead promotes greater muscular and endocrine (hormone) activity. Note the common physical changes between sex and exercise here, as they do crossover!   Psychological Changes That Occur During Exercise The psychological changes that occur during exercise are similar to those experienced during sexual activity and are mostly related to the release of endorphins and other ‘feelgood’ hormones. These help to regulate mood, and it is common knowledge that frequent exercise and leading an active, healthy lifestyle promotes a feeling of wellbeing.   Does Sex Affect Our Workouts? This is where things become complicated. Though extensive studies have been done on the subject, the results of these have varied massively. We must also take into account the experience of individuals, and this anecdotal evidence again has huge variance. Let’s look at both:   Sex and Training: What the Science Says Scientific studies on the relationship between sex and training are contradictory at best. There’s no denying the positive benefits of both activities, particularly from a psychological perspective, but as for the effect of sex on actual performance in the gym the results are inconclusive. A study, published in April 2021, by Kirecci, Albayrak and co. examined the effects of sexual activity of 50 men in the 24 hours prior to training on lower body strength. The study measured effects by having the men perform 3 separate squat sessions, each at the same time of day. Each of these sessions occurred after participating in or abstaining from sexual activity the night before. The men performed 5 sets of 5 repetitions of their maximum squat weight during these sessions and the difference in weight lifted was observed. The study concluded that ‘sexual intercourse within 24 hours before exercise [has a] detrimental effect on lower extremity muscle force, which suggests that restricting sexual activity before a short-term activity may be necessary.’ Aside from this study, most others found either no notable relationship between sex and athletic performance. A meta-analysis of 9 crossover studies, conducted by Zavorsky and Brooks and published on 16 September 2022, confirms this. The analysis concluded that ‘The results demonstrate that sexual activity within 30 min to 24 h before exercise does not appear to affect aerobic fitness, musculoskeletal endurance, or strength/power.’ This is perhaps more notable, because these studies incorporated different types of exercise and were not restricted purely to a strength/power based activity like squats.   Anecdotal Evidence: What About the Experiences of Real Gym Goers? The anecdotal evidence is, as expected, highly individualised. However, there tends to be a bias against the results of most studies, particularly in those participating in sports involving strength and aggression. For example, many fighters claim that they perform better when they abstain from sex in the days leading up to a contest. Similarly, bodybuilding forums are full of debate on this topic and many claim they note a significant decrease in motivation to train at maximum intensity after sexual activity. It has been hypothesised that this may be due to a downregulation in testosterone production after sex; during orgasm the mineral zinc is released in the body and this is also a precursor for natural testosterone production in the body and may, therefore, provide some reasoning as to the experience of many trainees.   Key Takeaways The relationship between sex and workout performance will always be a complicated one. The effects of one on the other in terms of physical fitness and, in particular, mental wellbeing, are clear, but when it comes to actual performance this appears to be highly individual. We’d advise doing what feels best for you but not worrying too much about it. Instead, prioritise your nutrition and make sure you’re fuelling your workouts properly. While you’re here, why not take a look at the Innermost range? We’re proud to be completely transparent about the ingredients in our products and we always ensure they’re of the highest quality. Check us out, and be sure to get in touch if you have any questions! Read more