From 5 November, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a second national lockdown, closing gyms for four weeks along with tennis courts and golf courses.
Johnson acknowledged the mental health impacts of this but emphasised that getting the virus under control was crucial.
While nobody seriously disputes this, the impact on gyms, personal trainers and the millions who use them has been enormous, and perhaps avoidable.
A Second Blow for Businesses
Few businesses would survive being closed a third of the year with little financial support, but CD Fitness have.
The small gym in Bagshot, Surrey, provides private personal training sessions to individuals and small groups.
However, because of the company’s registration status, they have only received a small government grant covering rent and bills.
Owner Chris Dean said: “The day Rishi Sunak announced the self-employed scheme I cheered out loud because I thought it was going to help me support my family.
“But later that day read the terms and found out I wasn’t eligible.”
So when the studio shut, Dean had to think quickly to keep the business afloat and continue supporting clients.
Less than two weeks after the first lockdown began on 16 March, CD Fitness launched a series of online classes.
They now run daily classes and have an online community of more than 100 members, each paying £35 per month.
Dean said: “This side of our business has saved our studio.
“It has grown into something amazing, and our members see it as a huge part of their daily lives.”
During the first lockdown, the team couldn’t train anyone in person, but this time can do one-to-one sessions in public.
But Dean must now train a 74-year-old single-leg amputee in a park without the specialist equipment in the studio.
“[This gentleman] relies on our sessions for his fitness and wellbeing as he cannot get his heart rate up alone due to his situation.
“I am really not looking forward to doing this with him in the rain.”
Dean added: “The first time round I understood why they decided to close gyms; thousands of people entering a facility to exercise can spread germs, and pretty much every industry in the country closed down.
“This time around their decision to close gyms I think is the wrong decision.”
A study by ukactive of 22 million gym visits from July-September found the rate of transmission was 0.34 in 100,000. That is ten times lower than the national average.
CD Fitness keep their gym clean and safe, but with only 100 appointments per week, few people enter their studio.
Dean said: “To be put under the same restrictions as large chain gyms who can have thousands of people per week visit their premises is really disappointing.
“I thought this time around things might be different, but sadly, again, the personal training sector has been included with gyms which is a shame.
“You cannot compare the impact a personal trainer can have on someone’s life, and to take that away from them is awful.
“For many clients, we are fitness trainers, life coaches, nutritionists, mental health therapists and more.”
But for Dean, the worst part is the inability to go into houses to train clients.
Dean has supplemented his income by gardening and can cut someone’s hedge but can’t train them in the same space.
He said: “The government said getting fit and healthy would help us fight the pandemic and unfortunately they haven’t backed this up.
“As a sector, we feel the personal training industry has been let down.”
A Slow Start for the Young
21-year-old Janka Éles started working at PureGym in Camberley just weeks before the first lockdown, following a paid work experience placement.
Éles was ready to start training clients but feared her dream job would be over before it had started.
“I was nervous about starting before so then being at the start of a pandemic made me very sceptical as to how and if I would be able to make it work.”
She added: “I was quite upset when the first lockdown occurred in March.
“I did not have clients at that time yet so in a way it was a little less to worry about, but also it was challenging mentally, as it was for anyone who finds comfort and mental escape in the gym.”
PureGym were able to furlough Éles for both lockdowns, which provided some stability.
They also reduced the rent trainers pay to coach clients in PureGym facilities, giving those trainers the chance to recover financially.
This was particularly vital for new trainers with small client bases like Éles.
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Since then, Éles has worked hard to gain more clients, which makes the second lockdown more frustrating.
“It was very annoying, as they have just got used to the routine of working out, so I think it was just as intimidating for them as it was for me.
“But I felt a little bit more at ease for the second time because we have been through it before.”
Éles rented some equipment and has been training clients in the park as well as giving them home workout plans.
She has also started some online courses and joined online communities of personal trainers to enhance her skills and knowledge.
Despite making the best of the situation, Éles still questions the logic of closing gyms.
She said: “I would guess they decided to close them to give people one less excuse to leave their houses and to force them to take the measures more seriously.
“But I did not agree with the decision, as in my opinion having a place to keep physically and mentally healthy is essential.”
What the Science Says
Talking athletics, local leisure provision, & attempts to #saveliesure with @BBCLookEast. Keep an eye on tonight’s broadcast. It’s essential to keep pushing this, the leisure industry must be saved if we are to offset the public health damage of Covid!#phdchat #sportandleisure pic.twitter.com/8hkByuFj6o
— Stuart Haw (@haw_stuart) July 28, 2020
Stuart Haw, a PhD student at Northumbria University, has been researching the challenges community sports clubs face in managing facilities previously owned by councils.
As council budgets shrink, he thinks more facilities will transfer to the community on top of the 300 that have already.
Haw is also working with sports scientists exploring how lockdown has impacted how people exercise.
The blanket approach taken by the government to close leisure facilities during the lockdown frustrates Haw.
“Facilities such as gyms and leisure centres which have developed the strictest and most stringent modes of operations for reducing transmissions get banded in with facilities where this is not possible and facilities that have little public physical and mental health benefit.
“This is wrong. If the government are serious about saving the NHS and improving public health. Then as a society, we need safe places and spaces to do this.”
Haw further contends that this is not just people’s physical health that could take a hit.
“I have suffered from depression throughout my life and I know that I, like many others, would not be here if I did not have the safe spaces and places that gyms and leisure centres provide.
“Furthermore, for young people across the country gyms and leisure centres provide the only place for them to access grassroots club sport.
“Access to this allows them to be part of a team, to understand the feeling of victory and loss, and the opportunity to attain a sense of purpose through the physical endeavour.
“By restricting their access to such facilities, and such benefits, we risk losing a sporting generation.”
While undoubtedly people are upset with the government for closing gyms, some feel it was necessary.
Suzanne Hedges, an avid gym-goer from Berkshire, lives with someone who has underlying health conditions.
“I do think in areas that cases are high, they should be closed. It’s very difficult to keep every surface bacteria-free.
“Also, if you are asymptomatic you could go to the gym, run or lift weights for half an hour breathing out potential contagious COVID particles and so inadvertently infect someone in the room.
“I know it’s probably not high risk, but if you have someone at home with underlying health conditions as I do, then it’s just not worth it.”
A petition calling on the government to review gym closures gained over 600,000 signatures.
It was debated in Parliament on Monday, along with a petition calling for the resumption of golf that gained over 250,000 signatures.
While Minister for Sport Nigel Huddleston MP confirmed that gyms will reopen when lockdown ends on 2 December, he defended the government’s overall policy.
Referring to the various petitions, Huddleston said: “The difficulty is that when we unpick one thing, the effectiveness of the whole package of restrictions is compromised.”
The Sports Gazette have contacted Huddleston for comment, along with Michael Gove MP, in whose Surrey Heath constituency CD Fitness and Janka Éles are based.
As of publication, we are awaiting a response.