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Halifax's fitness industry has rebounded from COVID-19 lockdowns

Tori Jarvis Grant says attendance at her yoga studio, On the Mat, has finally returned to pre-pandemic levels.  (Submitted by Tori Jarvis Grant - image credit)
Tori Jarvis Grant says attendance at her yoga studio, On the Mat, has finally returned to pre-pandemic levels. (Submitted by Tori Jarvis Grant - image credit)

When she begins a yoga class at her north-end Halifax studio, Tori Jarvis Grant still sets up a camera so students can follow along at home with those attending in person.

It's a holdover from the pandemic, when classes Zoomed online helped her studio survive lockdowns and COVID-19 restrictions that once threatened to crater her fitness business and others like it.

"I remember saying, 'I can't wait until we don't do this anymore,'" said Grant, the owner of On the Mat. "That was three years ago, and here we are still doing [it] today. It's just the new reality."

Some group fitness operators in Halifax say the sector has rebounded since the pandemic, helped along by government funding, but also by new hybrid virtual and in-person business models.

In 2022, operating revenues for fitness and recreational centres in Nova Scotia rose to $84.5 million after two years of pandemic declines, according to Statistics Canada, returning to roughly 2019 levels.

On the Mat yoga studio in Halifax continues to offer both online and in-person classes.
On the Mat yoga studio in Halifax continues to offer both online and in-person classes.

On the Mat yoga studio in Halifax continues to offer both online and in-person classes. (Submitted by Tori Jarvis Grant)

Mathew Benvie, co-owner of Evolve Fitness, which operates four locations across the Halifax region, said his business model has not returned to the old normal.

"I think what we found with virtual was a lot of people learned during COVID that they can save themselves the commute," he said. "If they're driving 15 minutes to and from a gym — that's 30 minutes per day. They could do a virtual workout and they can have that time to go do something else that's beneficial to them."

It took Benvie three years for his business to return to pre-pandemic levels. By then, other gyms around the city had closed, giving him a new opportunity. Evolve took over two gyms looking to "offload" at the end of the pandemic.

Evolve also took advantage of two federal Canada Emergency Business Account loans to keep afloat during the pandemic, something he said is proving tough to repay.

New way to move

During the pandemic, when lockdowns closed On the Mat, Beth Downie took the restlessness of isolation and turned that into an energetic yoga routine in her one-bedroom apartment, including through online classes offered by the studio.

One of her favourite things about the return to in-person classes is the sense of community.

"I thought it was beautiful how the communities came back together and adjusted. I was really, really grateful for that," she said. "It was a game-changer."

But the appetite for virtual persists. Grant has introduced an app for student signups and even hired a software specialist to help her produce a livestream of every class for online access.

"People figured out a whole new way to move their bodies," she said. "Whether that was with an online program, whether that was outdoors, whether it was a whole new modality that they took up where they felt safer … everything changed."

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