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Gyms eye empty shops for extra space as UK returns to the treadmill

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Britons are heading back to the gym in big numbers as they look to get back into shape after the lockdowns of the past year and seek out the extra space to exercise away from home.

The Gym Group has said its membership numbers increased by one-third to 730,000 in the four months to the end of June, as 183,000 new recruits made a beeline for its treadmills and weight benches. The clamour means the company now plans to open 40 more gyms, in a push that could include a move into empty shops.

The upbeat figures sent the Gym Group’s shares up 8%. Its chief executive, Richard Darwin, said the company was experiencing a rapid recovery in its membership numbers. The 730,000 figure compares with a peak membership of 891,000 in February 2020 before the first coronavirus lockdown measures were introduced. Gym Group expects to gain more members when students return to university campuses.

Darwin said that on the back of the encouraging trend, and with members also working out more frequently, the company had “identified some exciting growth opportunities to expand our estate further”. It had raised £30m from shareholders to finance the openings, with former stores on retail parks making “very good gyms” as a result of the accessible parking and clear signage, he added.

The future of the country’s gyms looked bleak at the height of the pandemic, especially for public leisure centres, with many burning through their cash reserves after being forced to close for long periods. There were also concerns that after turning to online exercise gurus such as Jo Wicks, Britons would opt to continue exercising at home.

The Gym Group, where the average monthly cost is £19, has won cost-conscious consumers from more upmarket fitness chains as it does not require new joiners to commit to an annual contract. More than two-thirds of its members are under 34 and it said many did not have the space to work out at home.

Despite the Gym Group’s improving fortunes, the company made a £28.5m loss in the six months to the end of June because of this year’s lockdown. Its sales were down by a fifth at £29.3m.

The budget gym sector was emerging as one of the UK leisure industry’s post-Covid winners, said Harry Barnick, a senior analyst at Third Bridge, who added that Covid had strengthened the idea that “health is wealth”.

“The Gym Group is now focused on site expansion believing the worst of Covid is behind us and a return to normality is within its grasp,” said Barnick, adding that with membership still lagging behind 2019 levels, the company would be pinning its hopes on students returning from their summer break.

“As one of the cheapest operators on the market it is in a good position to drive membership growth beyond today’s figures,” he said.

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