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Coronavirus and the future of UK fitness

Gyms and leisure centres play a key public health role. Can the sector thrive in post-pandemic conditions? 

By Rohan Banerjee

This weekend, after four months of mandatory closure, more than 7,000 gyms, leisure centres and indoor swimming pools across England will be allowed to reopen their doors.

Like all coronavirus lockdown-easing measures, the move, confirmed by Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden two weeks ago,  presents dilemmas for the sector and its clients. On the one hand, socially distanced running and livestreamed workouts don’t quite cut it for everyone, while a number of experts maintain that gyms are high-risk spots for Covid-19 transmission. 

Enduring anxiety around the pandemic could see a drop-off in memberships, suggests Aaron Schiavone, a personal trainer based in Cheltenham. “Many people are still wary of the hygiene standards of gyms, and the hygiene of other users [which they can’t control],” he says. “You might see the more dedicated and ‘hardcore’ gym members flooding back on day one, but more casual gym goers will likely be slower to return, or might not return at all.” 

Last month, when the government indicated that gyms would be out of lockdown in July, industry body ukactive warned that “any further delay to reopening would also have grave economic consequences, including the potential loss of 2,800 facilities and over 100,000 jobs.” David Minton, director of the Leisure Database Company, a market intelligence firm, told the Guardian in May that up to 300 UK gym sites, particularly the smaller independent businesses, may not survive the crisis. He also said there was likely to be a mass exodus of “sleepers” – the 12 per cent, or 1.2 million, people who have gym memberships but hardly ever use them.

Gyms could digitise their offerings so more customers can work out remotely. Robert Williams, a fitness instructor at Your Leisure in Thanet, says the “market of virtual classes” could definitely expand, but he doesn’t think this could quite take the place of working out in real life. “Aerobic classes are one thing… And we’ve seen a lot of success with [ livestreamed classes run by TV fitness coach and presenter] Joe Wicks over lockdown. But I actually think many people would want to keep their memberships to do their favourite classes, in person, with their preferred instructor.”

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The “social aspect of gyms” is hard to replicate, adds George Keach, a freelance personal trainer based in Norfolk, “if you’re stuck behind a screen.”

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The government has issued strict guidelines around gyms reopening, including social distancing protocols, limits on class sizes, pre-booked workout times, and regular deep cleaning requirements.  Andrew Gillespie, the founder of Lear Group, a “physio-led” health business, appreciates the “importance of keeping everyone safe” but says that how closely guidelines are followed will vary from location to location.

“Every gym will have their own take. But everyone will do what they can,” he says. The company has invested in “anti-viral fog cleaning” technology and will spray its sites on an hourly basis, he says. “We want our clients to feel comfortable and safe.”

The fitness sector encompasses far more than just the sites that cater for “six packs and Instagram stories”, says Gillespie. The distinction between gyms and a health business like Lear Group, is that his business is fundamentally to do with “wellness”.

“Obviously, we have gym facilities, but we do a lot of work with the local NHS Trusts, on helping people who suffer from chronic conditions, or who are rehabilitating after a serious injury,” he says. One aspect of the gym lockdown conversation that has been “at times overlooked” is the role that gyms play in “communities” and “supporting local healthcare”, he says. Gym closures over the past four months have contributed to a “backlog” of other health issues, independent of Covid-19, says Gillespie.

Jo Turner-Attwell, 29, is a social worker based in east London. In 2017, she had a road accident that left her with a serious leg injury, leading her to need extensive physiotherapy. “Fortunately, I’ve been able to adapt to exercising at home now and I need less direct support,” she tells me. “But I think earlier in my recovery, I’d have been stuck in a situation between desperately needing to maintain my fitness and being more vulnerable to the virus. There is usually, [with injuries like mine], a two-year window where it is easier to make progress with rehab.”

Turner-Attwell notes that she is “lucky” for her recovery to now be as advanced as it is. But during the earlier stages of lockdown “one walk a day wouldn’t have been enough”, she says, adding that the role of gyms in supporting people with chronic illness or long-term injuries should not be overlooked.  

Like any other sector, fitness will need to adapt to a post-pandemic world. “That could mean raising prices to make up for limited capacity,” admits one independent gym owner in east London who prefers not to be named. “We’ll just have to see what happens. Bigger venues might be able to offset certain issues better than we can.” Social distancing “assumes” space, they say, but not every venue has an abundance of it.

Indeed, as Schiavone puts it: “Any guidelines need to be realistic. There are some elements you can police. There are others you can’t.”

[see also: Can pubs survive the coronavirus crisis?]