Gyms and fitness centers are still considered “leisure” establishments despite the benefits exercise can afford to overall health

By Nadine Halili | Lead photo by Tricia Guevara | Photo sourced from Victor Freitas/Unsplash

Following the transition from enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) to general community quarantine (GCQ) in “low-risk” areas in the Philippines, the distinction between what is and isn’t essential was made even more apparent: supermarkets and financial, pharmaceutical and healthcare establishments count as essential businesses while gyms, cinemas, theaters and malls are still considered non-essential businesses. 

The US has similarly differentiated businesses according to these categories, but these vary based on state policies. The reactions, unsurprisingly, were mixed. For instance, anti-lockdown protesters in Florida have pressured gyms to open by exercising outside the Clearwater courthouse sans masks or social distancing. This is in response to Gov. Ron Desantis’ three-phase plan to reopen the state. Desantis still hasn’t opened gyms and fitness centers but has allowed restaurants with full outdoor seating and indoor seating to reopen at 25 percent of building capacity. 

The protest also received different reactions online with many expressing that the protesters only prove that exercising can be done without gyms and fitness facilities. Amped Fitness owner Travis Labazzo spoke to WFLA last week clarifying that these protests were staged to support employees relying on gyms as their source of livelihood as well as his clients who need gyms for their “sanity.” 

On local shores, Rowena Walters, president of the International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness (IFBB) Philippines, has appealed to the Inter-Agency Task Force for Management of Infectious Diseases on May 1 to reconsider its decision in excluding the fitness industry from the list of establishments that are allowed to reopen during the ECQ and GCQ. According to Walters, the IFBB Philippines’ appeal wasn’t intended to undermine the national government’s efforts to manage this crisis but to represent the collective voice of more than 1,000 gym owners and more than 10,000 trainers and workers who were displaced due to the continued business closure.

“We need to understand what activities put us at risk and what we can do to protect ourselves rather than have an umbrella approach for disallowing everything. Living under a new norm is something we cannot escape,” says coach Don Velasco

Fitness is an essential aspect of well-being 

One argument that rings loud and clear is that the benefits of exercise make fitness an essential business.

“Exercise in general promotes a strong musculoskeletal system, a healthy brain, improved blood flow, better sleep, stronger imune system and a host of other benefits,” says sports science assistant professor Wisdom Valleser, adding that the benefits also seep through the psychological sphere such as enhanced self-esteem, feeling of control, improved mood and reduced stress. “Just the physical and mental health benefits of fitness alone gives a strong argument for the fitness industry to be deemed essential.”

Similarly, strength and conditioning expert Migie Felizardo says that although he understands why these establishments need to remain closed, it’s also true that health and fitness may have been overlooked as a necessary facet of our lifestyle.

“Staying physically strong and active is one of the best ways to fight the virus and lessen the risk of having further complications,” he says.

For competitive bodybuilder Kerwin Go who echoes the same sentiments, he believes however that gyms should remain closed for a complex yet simple reason: “In the current situation where mass testing and precise contact tracing is not at the optimum, it would be best not to reopen until we have more data to base that decision from.”


Gyms will need to operate differently

But the reality is, even if community quarantines are lifted eventually, physical and social contact will most likely be limited or highly discouraged. It isn’t easy to forget a pandemic of this scale and this will obviously be a challenge to gyms and fitness centers, especially since exercise equipment can transmit viruses to some extent even with disinfection practices.

“If and when the government allows gyms to operate, I think we will see a lot of precautions from both gym operators and members. Face masks will be a norm, sanitizing sprays, health declaration forms and social distancing will be just the start. An example is a chain of gyms in Hong Kong [that] have placed fiberglass divisions in all their cardio machines. Again, with the data we get from testing this is where our health officials can base regulations for all businesses that cater to the public,” says Go.

Other adjustments that can be made is to regulate the number of people in facilities at a time, which personal and CrossFit level 1 trainer Fides Gimenez thinks would “make sense” and possibly hints at what gyms could look like post-COVID-19. “It will take some effort on the business owner’s end however, it is definitely doable.” 

“We may also have to consider not allowing the elderly and people with comorbidities to enter the gym however, that does provide a dilemma since the argument can be made that those people actually need exercise more than young, healthy people do,” says Valleser. “Lastly, there is also the challenge of exercising while wearing a mask since it reduces air flow and thus makes breathing difficult. We should expect some people to pull down, or even totally remove, their masks in the middle of their workout and therefore we should be willing to strictly implement the rules and deal with people who won’t follow it.”

Ironman-certified coach and triathlete Don Velasco shares the same perspective, saying that since gyms are considered a hub of viral transmissions, exercise will never be the same again.

“We shouldn’t think of ‘working out’ in the traditional sense that we’re used to. Going to group classes, sharing equipment with other people, and crowded locker rooms are out of the question. We should think out of the box if we want to continue with our fitness regimen,” he says. “Running and cycling will probably become even more common as it can be done on your own but of course all of this is theoretical, it’s very difficult to say what is safe or not.” 

At the moment, there seems to be an uptick in online fitness and training programs as an alternative option until brazen solutions are rolled out, but these classes can only do so much and may even pose risks if you’re following an uncertified coach. 

Coaches and professional trainers rely on these establishments as their main sources of income and the rise of free online workout classes doesn’t help either

Which makes a reconsideration of the fitness industry all the more relevant: it’s driven by more than just leisure and recreation. There is also the economic aspect. Coaches and professional trainers rely on these establishments as their main sources of income and the rise of free online workout classes doesn’t help either.

Whether or not gyms and fitness centers will be allowed to reopen soon, exercise should be seen as a key measure to keep society healthy in the face of a pandemic but only with considerable policies in place that would slowly guide the public into the “new normal.” Indeed, the fitness industry will need to operate differently by incorporating new strategies and rules to get a clean bill of health. And if they ever do allow gyms and fitness facilities, cooperation and understanding between gym operators, fitness trainers and clients are necessary. It’s what’s needed to get everyone back on their feet. 

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