There is no argument that we are living in challenging times. Nothing is like it was. We’re missing family gatherings, hugging grandkids, school days, going out to restaurants, sports, and concerts. We stay in touch, virtually, through apps such as Zoom, FaceTime, or Houseparty. We’ve learned the meaning of social distancing and how to make masks out of socks. Our stress levels during these difficult times are higher than ever, and we are reminded of the benefits of exercise to help both physical and mental well-being. Yet, at a time we need it the most, gyms are one of the places closed to us.
So, the question we wanted to know was: What’s changed in the way you are trying to stay fit? In a survey of the almost 100 respondents, we were surprised to learn that 63%, are working out now more than before.
Elyse Camozzo, who was a frequent gym user, says, “I now am working daily in the yard or garden, walking the dog twice as frequently, and sometimes kayaking. I’m not doing a prescribed fitness workout, but I’m exhausted from the physical stuff I’m doing nearly every day. So, I think that while I’m not “working out” per se, at a prescribed time, I’m certainly doing enough activity to stay healthy.”
Another responder, Heather Hall, had been taking a formal exercise class twice a week before the shutdown and intending to walk on the days when not in class. Hall admitted she didn’t always live up to the goal. Now, however, “I’m averaging five days per week, and my walks are longer & further than previously. I’m exercising more than usual because this whole situation has promoted me to be more intentional about it.”
Comments, such as these are consistent with the survey results showing that people have taken up new ways to stay active through either walking or biking (22%), or working out on their own (22%). However, 29% have joined virtual classes, usually with an instructor or through a place familiar to them.
Helping that effort is the area’s largest recreational facility, the YMCA. They continue to train their members (and anyone else who is interested) through various sources such as Facebook, Zoom, and the YMCA website. Wendy Palmer, Easton Y’s Associate Executive Director, said: “We want our whole community to be healthy at home, not just Y members.” Their 30-45-minute live stream (and recorded) classes offer a variety of exercises from senior fitness, to yoga, to cardio fusion. And most require no equipment.
Of course, not all of the area gyms have the type of resources that the Y does. The strain of the closures is acutely felt by the local owners who are surviving by extending current contracts while continuing to collect on them. “Without it, we wouldn’t have any funding,” says Kiersten Mueller, owner of Another Level Fitness in Easton. “We wouldn’t be able to pay rent; we wouldn’t be able to pay any of the bills. There’s quite a lot of overhead with a fitness facility.”
With two gyms to sustain, Mark Cuviello, owner of Fitness Rx in Easton and Stevensville, understands. Both Cuviello and Mueller applied for SBA, Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans, and grants. But before they got any funding, they watched these programs run out of money. “I don’t really have a way to survive other than through these loans,” says Cuviello. “If the loans and grants come through, I’ll have to decide: Do I want to bring employees back? Because there’s really nothing to bring employees back for. We’re closed.” At this time, he has no choice but to freeze all memberships.
Amanda Parks, owner of Fit Flock in Chestertown, did not go after loans or grants, hoping instead that she could collect unemployment. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened and she’s trying to ‘just hang in there.’ Her gym sells class pass bundles instead of memberships and she too, has had to freeze them. “Whatever they had when things got shut down, they’ll have it just as if nothing happened.”
Unlike the rest of the fitness center we spoke to, Physically FITch owners, Eric Fitch and Jen Koch of Chestertown were able to secure a loan through PPP. For assistance with the loan, they credit their bank, but for being able to stay afloat they are grateful to some of their clients. When given the option to pause their account some of the members chose not to. “They said they want us to still be here when we resume, probably the new normal. They want to make sure that they can continue their routine with us on the other side of this,” said Koch. The community’s been very good so far,” says Fitch. “A lot of that is the aspect of our small business. I think a lot of our clients view us as family members.”
Of course, being closed means that, as with the Y, the gyms have had to get creative with how to keep the customers with whom they have built a relationship.
Says Mueller, “What we have done is switch over to online, doing all virtual classes. We have our regular class schedule. Our members can log into our meeting link, and continue to do regular training in their garages or their living rooms. And in that way, we’re seeing each other face to face. We’re interacting; we’re just not getting the fist pumps and high fives. Whatever they’re doing, it seems to be working. When they offered a free six-week program for anyone interested, they saw an increase of approximately 50 to 75 new members.
Using Zoom to continue with personal training her clients, Parks feels that it’s working well considering they’re not together physically. “I create their workout based on what they have in their home setting. Thankfully they all have at least a couple sets of dumbbells, a couple of them have steps, a couple of them have kettlebells even. I just have to be mindful every time I write up a workout of who has what.”
Cuviello is also doing online training now, although he doesn’t feel it’s sustainable for the future, for everyone. “The 40-year olds and up are not going to watch someone on TV do a workout. Millennials, on the other hand, like the concept of ‘I can take your class anytime I want and do it and move on.’ He thinks that this thinking will hurt the gym environment. “So, the way the industry is going to change is two-fold. You still have to provide the standard types of training, where I train you and make you laugh, and you have a good time. That’s because that generation grew up developing relationships. The younger generation doesn’t develop relationships, they’ve developed applications. So, you’re going to have to have a hybrid model, and that’s what I have to go to, and that’s really hard for me. I’m going to have to do everything I did before and provide online classes as well.” Right now, Cuviello is offering a four-week workout and nutrition program or a weekly workout program.
All of the fitness trainers are, however, aware of the limits of online training. “How I coach them has to be different,” says Mueller. “I can’t give them tactile cues. I have my personal training clients that I’m still training. They haven’t changed, but I have to set the camera up just right. We have to get a full-body view, and I have to change how I verbalize what I want. I have to give demos with my body. It’s very different.”
Cuviello also believes that besides proper training, his role is to motivate his clients, and he’s not sure that’s possible online. “Unless I’m there physically with somebody to help them work out, they’re going to get hurt, or they’re going to get tired of it and bored.”
Says Palmer, “Even though this is one-sided and we can’t see them, we’re still giving them safety tips and repeating the modifications and encouraging them to keep moving at their comfort level.
At the request of some of her ‘hardcore regular class participants,’ Program Director and HITT instructor for the Kent YMCA, Erica Osterhout, is hosting Zoom classes where she and her workout group can see each other. “I started with Facebook live and the group voted to go to Zoom so they can see the same faces they’re used to seeing in the regular classes. One of my participants, who has been with me for three to four years, said ‘I’m accustomed to your energy and that’s what I want.’ Sure, they can see the other workouts online, but they don’t have a connection to that instructor or even to that music. It’s important.’
Owner of Bay Pilates, Lorri Wilson-Clarke, has had to rely on a less digital footprint in her business. Wilson-Clarke uses Pilates equipment, which is not typically found in the home. Her training is also limited to small classes or one-on-one. Currently, she’s calling emailing, texting, or using FaceTime to stay in touch. Not something she will continue doing when her business is allowed to open again.
So, what happens when gyms do re-open? Our survey found the majority of responders, 41%, plan on returning to the gym and continuing as before, although an additional 24% would consider a combination of gym and virtual home workouts.
This doesn’t surprise Palmer. “I don’t care how many virtual classes people put out there. I think they’re always going to come back to friends that they can engage with. They also miss those instructors that they know personally, not somebody that is on a computer screen that they’ve never met.”
Mueller agrees, “I like to say we don’t sell memberships. We sell coaching, so we sell relationships.”
Fitch and Koch are trying to be realistic, but are worried about their immediate future. “We have two big concerns.” says Fitch. “The first is about the first month that we’re allowed to open. Who’s going to actually feel safe? I don’t think that just being open means that we’re going to be profitable. I mean, honestly, I’m hoping that my January of 2021 that we’re going to be back where we should be. But you know, the problem with fitness and exercise is once you fall out of your routine, it’s very hard to get back. Koch added that their second concern was over the stock market behavior and how that will affect their business in general. “Since we are more of a luxury service, being primarily personal training, I think that that will greatly affect our revenue. So, we worry: can we pick up new clients and how many of our current clients will stick with us.”
Cuviello had an additional perspective. “Over the bridge, they’re going to be banging the door down to get into the gym. They’re going to be frantic lunatics to get back into the gym. On the Eastern Shore, the older population is who I’m worried about. They’re going to say. ‘Well, I went three, four months without it. I don’t think I need it.’ Until they go to the doctor, and the doctor tells them they are pre-diabetic or have cholesterol issues. Then they’ll hit the gym again.”
Palmer hopes to prevent that possibly unnecessary trip to the doctor, stressing that the Y’s reach extends beyond fitness. Via Zoom meetings and regular phone check-ins, instructors have continued their work with the Chronic Disease Prevention group, the Rock Steady Boxing for those with Parkinson, the LiveSTRONG cancer survivor groups, and the Enhance Fitness fall prevention program.
Until the world learns how to navigate through life after COVID, we can only speculate on how the shutdown will change the fundamental way we live, from attending meetings to working out. Still, the one consistent message being passed on from both the larger organizations and the smaller fitness businesses was this: Move more. Sit less.
Wilson-Clarke says she calls her clients and tells them, “You can walk, you can breathe, you can lift your arms up and down while you’re walking and get your circulation going. Don’t worry about missing your workout. Just get out and move. Get out in the sunshine for a little bit when you can, if for no other reason than to boost your mood.”