The pandemic upended many aspects of our lives, including how we exercise. As gyms closed in 2020 to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, a lot of us tried to find alternative ways to stay fit.

Washington gyms have been open again for well over a year. The last state-mandated closure lifted in January 2021. But how many of us have gone back to the gym?

New data from market-research firm Nielsen shows gym memberships in the Seattle area are still lagging well behind their pre-pandemic levels. In fact, Seattle saw one of the biggest drops in gym membership among large U.S. metro areas.

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Surveys conducted in 2018 and 2019 showed around 28% of Seattle-area adults, or about 875,000 people, had a membership to a gym or health club. In the latest surveys from 2021 and 2022, that number dropped to 18%, or 595,000 people — that’s 280,000 fewer people.

The drop in gym memberships since 2018-2019 has affected nearly every major metro area in the U.S. — and nationally, there were around 11 million fewer gym members, Nielsen data shows.

Among the 50 most-populous metro areas, Seattle’s 10 percentage-point drop ranks as the seventh-largest decrease in gym memberships. San Diego had the sharpest decline at close to 15 points.

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Only one metro area among the 50 largest saw an increase in the share of adults who belong to a gym: Providence, Rhode Island. It wasn't much of a change, growing from 19% pre-pandemic to 20% in the latest data.

So does a decline in gym membership mean people have grown more sedentary since the pandemic?

Not necessarily. While gyms are the most common way we get regular exercise, you certainly don't need to belong to a gym to stay fit. Some people who may not feel safe going to a gym anymore have switched to home workouts, investing in exercise equipment or participating in online fitness classes. Nielsen data shows 23% of Seattle-area adults own home exercise equipment.

I was among those who canceled my gym membership in 2020, but I did go back in early 2021. It was obvious there were a lot fewer people, but I don't think many of us were complaining — nobody likes an overcrowded weight room or waiting around for a machine to free up. But it's certainly not good news for gym owners and employees. The fitness industry was among the hardest hit by the pandemic, and many gyms closed down.

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Nielsen data also shows there hasn't been a big change in participation in certain types of exercise in the Seattle area. For example, the latest numbers show around 16% of local adults said they've done yoga or Pilates in the past 12 months — that's unchanged from the pre-pandemic period. About 32% have ridden a bicycle, which is also unchanged. And 24% have gone running, which is just slightly lower than the pre-pandemic period.

One form of physical activity in particular — hiking — exploded in popularity during the pandemic in Seattle.

Even in outdoors-obsessed Seattle, hiking got more popular during the pandemic (June)

On the other hand, swimming and group fitness classes had a significant drop in participation since the 2018-2019 period.

There is research showing the pandemic has resulted in an overall decline in physical activity. There's also data showing the so-called COVID 15 phenomenon was a real thing — many Americans gained some unwanted weight during the pandemic, which was probably due in part to a decline in physical activity.

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The Nielsen data shows, as you might expect, younger people are more likely to belong to a gym than older people. But it's not a huge difference. Around 22% of those 18-34 in the Seattle area have a membership, compared with 18% of those 65 and older.

While there's been a decline in gym memberships among all age groups, the 35-49 year old age bracket stands out. In the pre-pandemic period, 33% had a gym membership, the highest of any age group. That number plummeted to just 18% in the latest data release.

There was also a much bigger drop among men than women. Before the pandemic, 32% of Seattle-area men had a gym membership — that went down to 19% in the 2021-2022 period. Among women, the number declined more modestly, from 24% to 17%.