Battle ropes at an industrial gym.
Battle ropes at an industrial gym.

I vividly remember driving to the gym one sunny morning in late 2019 listening to the news bulletin on 702 and being deeply concerned about the new virus spreading in a Chinese city I’d never heard about. What will happen if this “thing” spreads across borders, I wondered.

That December, while running along a 10km-odd stretch of beach in the Eastern Cape, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this would be the last “normal” holiday for a long, long time. January started with a bang, as all Januaries do in SA, except this time there was an eye on the then-broadly described “Coronavirus”.

When scenes of Italian hospitals interspersed with people singing from their balconies filled Twitter and Facebook timelines, the writing was on the wall. Fighter jets leaving smoke trails in the colours of the Italian flag, egged on by the powerful vocals of Pavarotti, were a sight to behold.

Unfortunately we have a far more complicated flag and it would have been a disaster.

It’s about that time that questions started landing in my inbox for the Water Cooler column in Business Day: What about gyms? Surely they’re the most unsafe spaces? The initial answers were unclear, the consensus then was that the virus was likely not airborne, but eventually it became patently clear that groups of people in an enclosed space would become known as superspreader events.

Eighteen months later and we know that gyms spread the virus but Pick n Pays don’t, and that group classes put you at risk but protests don’t. Yes, not even I am immune to SA’s favourite pastime: whataboutery.

It’s a complicated old thing, this virus. How can we forget that in its early days, before it mutated half way up the Greek alphabet, it despised open shoes and demanded you quit smoking — or rejuvenate the illicit cigarette trade — but increase your sugar intake (as many shops filled the cigarette shelves with M&Ms and other delights) to subtly switch from one comorbidity to another.

The big question for fitness was: what would happen to gyms? There was a rapid upsurge in exercise. Heck, neighbours who for five years prior to the pandemic ignored their poor barking dogs, became vocal activists for the right to walk and run with their dogs — at least some souls benefited. From personal experience living with a trainer, online training surged. Her business doubled. People who had never bothered about exercise were suddenly very keen to start moving — a massively positive development.

Online working out gym sessions.
Online working out gym sessions.

The most amazing outcome, though, is that as gyms have reopened (and closed and then reopened), the clients have stuck. Where appropriate, and possible, they come to her facility and adhere to strict Covid-19 protocols or she travels to them, again making an effort to differentiate from “mainstream gyms” by placing a high premium on hygiene, ventilation and social distancing that just isn’t as doable in a traditional gym set-up.

What about me? I’ve had a gym membership since Health and Racket club signed you up with little laminated cards that looked like cheap versions of our licence cards. During the hard lockdown, no amount of online high intensity interval training was going to suffice — for me. Sure, I did it and enjoyed it, but my primary love is strength and weight training as I am sold — for good or for bad — on the fat-burning, muscle-building and overall benefits of trying to become, and remain, strong. So I invested in a home gym — I never have to step foot in a traditional gym again. And yet, I have not cancelled my membership.

Why, you may ask? Because nothing beats a gym. Full stop. I miss saying “Hi” to the people I trained alongside for years. My gut says gyms — at least the big ones — are safe for many years to come, but the way people use them will change forever.

But, is this a fantasy? According to a recent article on the BBC, it is not. As Welsh gyms have reopened post-lockdown, the gym numbers are healthy and people are training longer, later, and because of hybrid working conditions, they are training throughout the day. The means the awful, squashed rush between 5pm and 8pm no longer exists.

According to the BBC article, “PureGym’s 1-million members now visit 1.43 times a week on average, compared with 1.21 before lockdown, while the 5pm-8pm peak has ‘quietened down’. Visits are also now spread across the day and later into the evening.”

The nuance worth noting, though, is in this sentence: “Personal trainer Harley Edwards said she had seen a change, with 100 of her 150 clients exercising solely online.”

A little further down the article, the author quotes Edwards again: “When Welsh gyms reopened in May after lockdown, she expected demand for virtual sessions to drop, but said: ‘I didn't experience a dip at all and I found that members that did cancel ended up rejoining again’.”

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