A young man sprints along the straightaway of the track. I imagine that his mouth reveals a grimace but I can only see the focus in his eyes. I wonder how he can breathe while wearing a mask. I walked across the lanes surprised to see so many people strolling and jogging on the track. I am puzzled as to why one group of people that I assume are family wear their masks. We are outdoors and others are more than six feet apart. Some prefer to side on the line of caution.
This what our new world looks like.
I walk across the lanes to the center turf field, the runner in me longing to quicken my stride and race off for at least a lap. But in the same breath quarantine already included lots of single and stroller runs so my muscles are aching for variety. I’ve also gotten on the at-home workout program bandwagon although Zoom workouts, livestreams, and recorded classes still lack the same energy as in-person classes. But if anything these options prevented me from falling off my fitness progress. I approach the group of women of all ages that gather like a flock of geese. I could squeal in delight to be part of a group again.
One instructor leads us through a warm-up that already leaves me perspiring. The sun makes itself known, the humidity a cruel reminder that drinking water is a necessity to survive this workout. It’s a constant seesaw of feeling like I am dying and feeling alive when the endorphins hit. It’s the type of class where participants can go at their own speed and modify when necessary but are pushed to their potential.
Two female instructors lead the class through a series of exercises. This week it was a kickboxing workout—something I’ve never done outdoors. It feels familiar but new. The women cut the class in half, each of them leading their group for ten minutes before switching off. It feels like an eternity. Still, the class flies by. Before I know it it’s been more than an hour. Class ends and I’m left satisfied, full on positivity. I feel cleansed in mind and body, a refreshing feeling during a time of germs, uncertainty, and fear. I feel strong and healthy during a time when health is the most important thing in the world.
The following week the instructors tell us to bring weights for a full-body strength and cardio class. All about weight training during COVID, I can hardly wait to see what the women have up their toned sleeves. Just when I pray for no more squats in fear that I will walk like a newborn deer the following day the instructor I belovedly dub the drill sergeant follows them up with jump squats, side lunges, deadlifts, and so on. My body is challenged in new ways.
While my newfound adored at-home workout videos have been doing the job, I realize at this moment who much I missed someone demanding I get lower, reach further, jump higher. I need my sergeant to guide me through my full range of motion, correct my form, and make me dig deeper while looking at me dead in the eye.
In just one blink it seemed like the world shut down. Many fitness lovers continue holding breathes as to when their gym is will reopen.
Many might wonder why people like myself willingly agree to exercise in the blazing summer heat, seemingly torturing ourselves, begging to sweat. Ask any one of us and we would answer that we would do anything for a good workout or to be around our like-kind—especially when we can’t step foot in a gym. This is the present—and could very well be the future of the kinds of class offerings personal trainers and gym owners provide in a post-COVID world.
Not being able to attend the gym is one of the hardest things for fitness lovers to experience during COVID-19. For many, exercise is part of their everyday ritual, the gym the place of worship.
But prayers are starting to be answered now that states are reopening. But many questions remain. How safe is it even to return to the gym? What does going to the gym during and post-pandemic look like? How will the fitness industry adapt moving forward?
Some don’t have the option to workout in a gym. Others do but rather workout outdoors or with at home with the help of technology to prevent their exposure to the coronavirus.
Just think of how many people use equipment at the gym and don’t clean after. Now add in the potential spread of coronavirus germs. Despite gym staff required to sanitize more now, everyone’s definition of clean is different. If the threat of infection from contact with metal surfaces and shared equipment isn’t enough there’s also the fact that COVID-19 could be the air itself—making the facility a landmine of germs.
Some want to avoid gyms like the plague to prevent exposure to the coronavirus. But then some can’t wait for doors to open.
It’s important to note that there are different guidelines and regulations enforced by states and further by counties. Gyms are allowed to reopen in most states with New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and North Carolina the exception.
New York’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo excluded gyms from phase four of the state’s reopening despite having no new reported COVID deaths for the first time on July 12. New York’s daily positivity test rate was 1.5 percent as of July 14. Gyms and fitness centers were then allowed to open as of August 24
September 1 marked the first day gyms could reopen at a 25% capacity in New Jersey. This comes after almost six months of being closed.
During the summer, states like Pennsylvania where most counties were in a reopening phase that includes gyms, whereas 13 counties still required gyms to stay closed. Worst off were states like Florida that saw in COVID-19 cases that raised the question of if the state prematurely reopened or not?
“That’s the hard part right now—especially gym owners—but businesses in general, we don’t know what’s going to happen because I feel like we could have another lockdown at some point if numbers spike,” Kailey Rowan, C.S.C.S., owner of Hardcore Fitness North County in California said. “We don’t have control of that, so in the meantime, it’s learning to adapt to the new normal.”
Classes held in small, windowless, sweaty rooms might not be making a comeback for some time. It’s the class size that now is smaller, space between members larger.
“It’s a new world, and I don’t know what gyms are going to look like when they open,” personal trainer Shaun Provost said.
Health Safety Measures
Once the gym near you reopens, this new normal includes new regulations including reduced capacity, as well as safety precautions like more hand sanitizers, and cleaning crews. The place where we work on personal health now has to emphasize public health.
”Right now we think the virus is everywhere,” said New York-based rheumatologist and fitness enthusiast Dr. Maggie Cadet. “We are still learning about COVID and precautions need to be in place. But I think if you are taking the right precautions you can return [to the gym].”
Members should call their gym and ask what precautions are being put in place. This includes the policy on masks, how often and by who are machines cleaned, whether or not equipment is spaced out, and the limitations on capacity.
Mask or No Mask?
Dr. Cadet recommends gyms requiring everyone to wear a mask. “It may be more difficult but if you are not wearing a mask you cannot control where the respiratory droplets are going,” she said.
At Hardcore Fitness North County everyone comes in wearing a mask, but only trainers are required to keep it on during workouts.
“It’s awful honestly,” Rowan said about wearing a mask while instructing. “It’s uncomfortable. Breathing is hard. I won’t say that I get nauseous, but I’m breathing in more CO2 and not enough oxygen, so it does make you feel not great. I will pull it down if I know I am standing away from people so that I can breathe.”
It’s up to members if they want to wear it or not.
“There’s no one that I’ve seen in the classes in the past few days that have worn them,” she said after the gym reopened. “Once they enter the box they take it off. Most people will come in with it, they take it off, they’ll workout with it, and then they will put it back on or they will just cover their face when they walk out.”
Vigor Ground Fitness owner Luka Hocevar also shares the same belief that masks are up to the member.
“High intensity training is hard in itself as far as breathing goes. I would say most people don’t have great breathing patterns and adding a mask can create a whole bunch of issues,” Hocevar, FZS, ISSA—CFT, RKC, said. “So I think that on our end the bigger thing is let’s make sure we
have the appropriate distance, let’s make sure we get everybody on what they need to do and then allow members to make the choice and give them the education. With the mask here’s the things you are looking at that could be problematic, here’s things that experts say can happen and let them make a decision.”
According to Dr. Cadet, members especially should be wearing masks. Even at a distance sweat and respiratory droplets can spread when exercising—something that is out of your control.
“We are worried about the members who have come in contact with other people in their social bubble, we have no knowledge about,” she said. “I know it’s difficult. That’s why we are wearing these masks to prevent transmission.”
While this does mean breathing in more carbon dioxide, Dr. Cadet said that this is not a major issue for those with good respiratory status. She suggests stepping away from the workout to pull the mask down when breathing gets hard. She also recommends members wear a mask made of breathable fabric for better breathing capacity.
Those with respiratory problems might want to think about doing gym classes.
“We breathe in carbon dioxide all the time so most people are able to sustain that, but if you have any underlying respiratory problems like asthma, COPD, emphysema, it may not be smart to exercise at the gym,” said Dr. Cadet.
While members have the choice at some gyms, it’s important to respect others and have social and emotional awareness.
Keeping the facility and equipment clean is essential. We are talking about a place full of sweat, a place where we breathe heavy, a place where people are congregating together. Gyms should hire a cleaning service to come in to at least do a deep cleaning at night. Hand sanitizers need to be placed out throughout the floor. Every machine or station needs disinfectant wipes.
At Rock Steady Boxing, a medical based gym with classes for those with Parkinson’s disease in Indianapolis, IN trainer Catherine Vicks revealed it has implemented more cleaning procedures including a hospital grade UV light cleaning system. An essential business that has been open during COVID-19, this gym also added more hand sanitizer stations and practice social distance.
The threat of COVID-19 might have people cleaning up after themselves when they are done with equipment. Just remember that cleanliness is subjective. This is why bringing your own equipment like a towel and even dumbbells and kettlebells might be a smart idea when in a group workout setting.
Personal trainer Shaun Provost revealed that during small group training done outdoors everyone must stay at one station where they do all sets then move on to the next after cleaning.
But Is It Worth The Risk?
With new safety measures in place members are left wondering if it is enough? Is it worth it to workout at a gym when there are so many at-home and outdoor options?
There are two different types of people: those who can’t wait to get back to the gym and will take that risk and those who are still fearful and will stay away even post COVID.
Dr. Cadet said you have to understand the risk, specifically your own risk profile. “I recommend those who are at a higher risk for COVID, and the CDC reports people with heart, lung disease, people who are suppressed, cancer patients, autoimmune patients, I would probably stay away from the gym,” she said.
She recommends exercising outdoors for the lower risk plus added benefits like fresh air and vitamin D—which also plays a role in immune system health. However, she cautions people can still get COVID-19 if others aren’t wearing masks.
“I have seen around New York City as the weather has gotten warmer and the cases have gone down, people have relaxed their social distancing and their need to wear masks,” said Dr. Cadet. “I see it every day and that’s what’s going to get us back to square one because the pandemic is not over. I understand the need for people to want to get back to normal life, but this is a marathon. We still have to continue these measured that have proven to reduce transmission.”
While there is little known about the long-term effects of COVID-19 for those who recovered, Dr. Cadet cautions about these people rushing back to the gym.
She does know that there are people that insist on attending the gym and that’s fine for low risk but is pleasantly surprised with the number of options for exercise. This includes apps, livestreams, and virtual coaching, and classes.
But how is that impacted the industry as a whole?
The Future Of The Fitness Industry: Changes To Group Fitness
Wearing a mask isn’t the only big change to gym workouts. Classes have been impacted by size to how trainers teach these classes and even the effectiveness of the classes itself.
For Hardcore Fitness North County, gym closures mean only holding bootcamp classes that consist of bodyweight exercises. The only equipment used is dumbbells.
Opened mid-June, the gym no longer has cardio classes for now. Classes are limited to 24 people, a cut from the typical 40 members per class. The duration of each class is also reduced from 60-minutes to 45—the extra time spent sanitizing equipment. Members are asked to wipe down dumbbells after class, followed by cleaning from staff. People are instructed to leave the facility in small chunks at a time.
At Vigor Ground Fitness in Washington, new guidelines also mean cutting its group team training classes that previously included up to 30 members. At over 8,000 square feet, the gym is able to hold about 50 people, but cannot have groups of more than five to 10 people to follow the 30 percent occupancy regulation.
Owner Luka Hocevar revealed that along with small group personal training Vigor Ground Fitness is now offering more one on one programs. This is something it didn’t do much of before. Bigger group classes mean more revenue.
Trainers also need to adapt to different ways of instructing. He said that trainers need to rely on verbal cues, a sentiment echoed by Hardcore Fitness’ Kailey Rowan. “We aren’t supposed to touch anyone. You have really good trainers that know how to explain how to correct something,” she said.
North Carolina-based personal trainer Shaun Provost acknowledged changes to HIIT classes where members aren’t getting 40-second on and 20-seconds to switch stations. “You do all sets then clean your station, so then there are longer rest periods,” she said. “You’re almost not even getting the same workout because you’re not go, go go, getting that HIIT timing because you’re so worried about cleanliness.”
Only The Strong Will Survive
No one wants gyms to reopen more than its owners.
“This is probably the hardest year in this industry ever,” Hocevar, who is also a fitness business consultant, said.
Despite the U.S. being the largest health and wellness market, Hocevar predicts 35 to 50% of gyms closing for good. It’s projected that in a typical year with a good economy about 20% of gyms close.
At Hardcore Fitness in CA, owner Kailey Rowan has felt the financial hardships. Despite being opened as of June 15, member’s who don’t feel comfortable coming back continue to have their accounts frozen.
“We are dealing with people canceling because they want to stay home, try something else, or something that is around fewer people,” she said. “Gym owners—but businesses in general—we don’t know what’s going to happen because I feel like we could have another lockdown at some point if numbers spike. We don’t have control of that, so in the meantime, it’s learning to adapt to the new normal.”
She did reveal that most of her members returned and she expects to see a new wave of members coming in as people might want to work out at a gym to keep up their newfound fitness habit.
During COVID-19 Hocevar decided to continue to keep his whole staff at Vigor Ground Fitness on regular pay, something he said was the right thing to do. After transitioning to virtual streaming immediately during shut down, his business was able to maintain its revenue at first. But even successful gyms have felt the wrath of COVID-19.
“The irony of it all is about six weeks ago, if you did say you were going to open, you would be judged even though this is my livelihood,” he said. He dealt with the frustration of seeing people gather at restaurants while his gym remained closed.
Then came the racial inequality protests—a movement he supports—which allowed the gathering of people yet there was the dichotomy of don’t leave the house or open the business.
“For businesses, take every precaution you can but you also have to understand that when you shut down business for four months there is going to be a cascade of consequences,” Hocevar said.
What could save gyms is moving to virtual options that can reach more customers. Gyms should continue with this hybrid form of classes in order to survive.
Moving Forward With Virtual Workouts
“The gyms that do survive, that do make it and innovate, will be more valuable moving forward,” Hocevar said.
Enter in those virtual fitness options.
It has become a game-changer for fitness professionals looking to keep an income while providing gym lovers with a way to continue to exercise.
“What we are seeing is people that were going to a bigger box gym started to train from home— getting a couple of kettlebells, a barbell or maybe just bodyweight,” Hocevar, said. “This is something that I can do and I don’t need to drive to the gym. You can knock out a 45-minute workout at home and subscribe to an app or maybe virtual streaming from a gym or a coach that I like, so I think that world will drastically grow.”
Vigor Ground Fitness plans to continue with virtual options. This led Hocevar to evolve his business to now think about different online coaching possibilities to add another stream of revenue and offset financial losses.
Kailey Rowan also said that her gym also is continuing with virtual coaching and live stream workouts. Members who aren’t ready to come back can choose remote workout options that are offered at a cheaper membership price. There are some members that attend in-person and then also pay for virtual options at that additional cost.
“That’s going to be an option for most gyms moving forward, in general, is they are going to have some sort of online platform,” she said. This could either be real-time workouts or recorded videos that can be played by members on demand. “Most gyms will have to go that route if they want to keep their members in or just have another section of income coming from online stuff.”
The downside to virtual options means not having that gym atmosphere and sense of community. For experienced trainers, it means adapting to a new style of instruction. But Hocevar thinks the innovations will be better for the industry.
“A year from now for the people that make the right decisions and work hard and believe in this industry, I think they will look back and be like this created a lot of good things.”
Not all change is bad. At the very least COVID-19 gave people time to work on their health. Many started going for walks, eating healthier, and maybe even starting at-home workouts. Let’s just hope the new healthy habits positively impacts the fitness industry post-COVID-19.
Trainer Shaun Provost summed it up perfectly. “It will be a whole new world on the other side of this for sure.”