Unlock 3: Why it is unwise to re-open gyms

Gym owners expect fewer customers, fear unsafe conditions even with precautions

gym-exercise-working-out-aayush Representational image | Aayush Goel

Anuj Sharma owns a fitness studio in Delhi, eponymously titled Anuj Academy. After four months of staying shut because of the coronavirus-induced lockdown, he will finally get to go back to his physical studio on August 5, the day gyms and yoga institutes are set to re-open with strict guidelines. But Sharma, who has been holding aerobics classes on Google Meet all this while, is realistic about how the new routine will pan out.

"Even if 6-7 people show up tomorrow, I will be happy. I had to get rid of all the dumbbells, plates and rods. If four people are using the same equipment, it will be a problem. We will just do aerobics and no-contact exercises for now," says Sharma in between sending WhatsApp messages to a chunk of clients, informing them about the exact same thing on no-weights classes. He has dipped into his savings to pay rent for his premises, with no rebate in lockdown months.

Under Unlock 3.0, the Union health ministry issued a list of norms and protocols on social distancing and hygiene in yoga centres and gyms. While yoga studios which focus on stretching exercises in a single enclosed space can somewhat implement the guidelines, the feasibility of working out in COVID-compliant ways in stuffy, high-contact spaces like gyms is another matter.

Apart from continual disinfection of surfaces, the government has said that only asymptomatic people with face masks and covers will be allowed, with the prescribed distance to be maintained between staff members and visitors: A gym floor should have space of four metres per person, equipment must be kept six feet apart and personal trainers are to maintain a distance of six feet from their clients. One could wear a visor while exercising as masks make breathing difficult. On air-conditioning, the temperature range is to be set at 24-30 degrees Celsius. Members are expected to get their own exercise mats.

Whether or not these guidelines are followed will completely depend on the seriousness of the management and staff—and on the social behaviour of patrons who are used to sweating it out in closed, compact spaces, often with unreasonable demands on temperature control and turns on the treadmill.

The closure of gyms for months have led to significant job losses in the fitness industry. Global fitness studio chain Gold's Gym filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in May this year.

Pressing the restart button is expected to regenerate employment in this informal sector. But nowhere has the government issued any guidelines on how to run the business of gyms in this altered scenario. The absence of rules which will allow cash-strapped gym owners and landlords to meet halfway is likely to create a chaotic situation in the coming days, not to mention the sheer infeasibility of gymming effectively, what with so many constricting guidelines to be mindful of.

"Why does anyone open a gym? It's not social work or some great passion for fitness. It's business. Health is secondary. If the gym owners don't have money, how will you help anyone?" asks Kamal Chhikara, online fitness trainer, and former head coach and owner of Reebok CrossFit Robust in New Delhi.

"During lockdown, the gym owners could not bargain for any discounts or rebates on rent. Now the landlords will expect full rent because gyms are officially open, even if fewer people will come and maintenance costs will go up. Before coming up with all these guidelines on gaps and sanitation, the government should have formulated some business rules for both landlords and owners to survive," says Chhikara, ruing how the same distancing guidelines by WHO have been rehashed without consulting fitness trainers or experts in the industry. He warns that gym membership prices will now go up substantially to recover losses.

Chhikara says re-opening gyms now is an ill-considered decision. Constantly wearing and removing one’s mask while being mindful of cleanliness and social distancing during a high-intensity workout cannot possibly be advisable or safe.

"Even if there is temperature control expected in a certain range, air circulation will still be there in an enclosed space. The government should be encouraging more outdoor activity this year, including getting gym trainers to hold sessions in parks with proper distancing," says Chhikara.