‘I’d just rather work out outside’: Why Bay Area’s outdoor gyms could last beyond the pandemic


Yotam Israeli tugs a wagon filled with 500 pounds of kettlebells, resistance bands and sanitizing solution over every bump in the sidewalk from his Hayes Valley apartment to a nearby park or outdoor basketball court.

The walk home can easily double from five to 10 minutes as he makes the same trek — uphill.

No matter.

Israeli is determined to carry out his plan for the future of fitness — an industry whose outlook has been radically changed by the pandemic. It’s started with the personal equipment he sets up outdoors for clients, and soon, he hopes, will include an indoor component — in time for the rainy season.

“Outdoor fitness is here to stay,” Israeli said. “There are a lot of people who won’t feel comfortable returning to an indoor gym until there’s a vaccine, and others who might never go back.”

24 Hour Fitness of San Ramon, Gold’s Gym and Town Sports International, all indoor titans, have recently filed for bankruptcy protection, and it doesn’t stop with the big-box gyms. Independent and boutique fitness centers have been decimated by months of closures.

Even as Bay Area gyms reopen at 10% capacity indoors, there may be a fundamental shift away from business plans built on cramming people into a confined space for classes, camaraderie and a good sweat.

In a recent Men’s Health magazine survey that polled nearly 10,000 people, 38% said they would never return to a gym. In more specific questions asked to 7,940 people, 44% said they felt “too nervous” to return to a gym, and 79% said they would return only if they were assured of extra safety and hygiene precautions.

“I’m not scared. I’d just rather work out outside,” said Sid Banothu, a product manager for Google Ads who personally trains with Israeli four times per week. “It’s just like I don’t want to go back to work, because I’ve gotten used to working from home. I like to work out outside, and I like the feeling. The weather is nice, and I’ve got a trainer. I don’t want to go back to a gym where I have to wait for my slot on a machine. And, it’s going to be at least a year before people are truly comfortable running next to someone on a treadmill.”

Israeli believes it will be way more than a year, and possibly indefinitely. At least, that’s the bet he’s making.

Less than three years after moving to San Francisco, Israeli hopes to start LuxFitSF — a luxury neighborhood gym, complete with scented towels, that turns a shipping container into an indoor gym that spills into a spacious outdoor plot for those who don’t want to brave breathing fellow gym-goers’ air. There is no firm start date, but mid-October is the hope.

“It doesn’t have to be grungy or be about getting your hands on the ground, like a boot camp style,” said Israeli, who said he is in talks with two Hayes Valley bike shops about leasing facilities that have access to plazas and with San Francisco about outdoor training permits. “We want this to be a high-end facility.”

Israeli, who moved from Israel to Madison, Wis., in 1999 when he was 7, studied business and finance at the University of Wisconsin. But ultimately, he came to the realization: “I don’t think I was put here to help people make more money. I think I was put here to help people change their lives.”

Surprised when he arrived in San Francisco in 2017 that not every region of California was about working out on sun-scorched beaches, he soon started being a regular at indoor gyms. He became the fitness director at Fitness SF.

In that role, he started traveling on the weekends. He trained at Onnit Gym in Austin, Texas, where he learned mobility and durability with some the world’s foremost mixed martial arts fighters. He worked on strength and conditioning at Exos, where he was alongside future first-round draft picks in the NFL and elite military operatives.

Three months before the pandemic, Israeli joined Equinox’s Beale Street location. The luxury fitness giant gave him a reduced salary for the first few months of the shelter-in-place order, he said, but it still was a blow.

Yotam Israel (right), personal trainer,  gives instruction to Sid Banothu (left)  of San Francisco  during a training session at Hayes Valley playground on Friday, September 25, 2020 in SaFrancisco, Calif.

He started personal training outdoors, an idea that has grown into about 45 sessions a week that cost a client on average $120 each per hour. During a training session, Israeli lays out padded yoga mats and plays quiet music, but he’s working alongside the pampering.

He corrects movements, sanitizes kettlebells and resistance bands, and will fine-tune a misplaced hand or janky hip without looking up from his towel.

“He’s watching everything,” Banothu said. “He caught me drinking a beer while walking through Hayes Valley the other night and just shook his head.”

Banothu said he worked out pretty regularly at his apartment gym before the pandemic, but his range of motion was so bad that he couldn’t do squats when he met Israeli. Within weeks of Israeli breaking down each muscle in the lower-half’s downward movement and upward thrust, squats are a regular part of Banothu’s training, who understands that not everyone can afford the luxury of a personal trainer.

Israeli is aware, too. Gyms at lower capacities are forced to charge higher prices and personal training outdoors is at premium — trends that could further inequities.

On Fridays, Israeli offers free classes. For now, those are capped by the county, but the outdoor space he is trying to get permitted could eventually allow for 48 people.

He has long-term goals for those who train with him.

“When you’re 90, I want you to be able to pick up a 25-pound weight — not because you want to flex in a gym, but because you want to be able to pick up your grandbaby.”

Rusty Simmons is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @Rusty_SFChron

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