Gyms are open in every tier, but can we ever really know how Covid-safe they are, particularly for those planning to mix with their families over the holidays?
It is funny how quickly we adapt to situations. After spending my entire life coming and going from home to work and restaurants to shops, it took just four months of lockdown to make the very idea of being outside the house feel unsafe, uncomfortable and downright bizarre. After two lockdowns and more months of limbo, I still do a double-take when I walk past a pub with the welcoming lights on inside and waiters passing pints to drinkers at socially distanced tables.
Other things that still feel like a novelty in this new normal include being in clothes shops, travelling on eerily empty trains (but also trains with more than a handful of people in them) and generally being in the presence of my best friends.
Because of this lingering discomfort, I have decided to be even more cautious in the next few weeks leading up to Christmas. I want to limit my hours in the pub with my housemates, avoid public transport where possible, and generally spend less time out in the world. And I’m doing this more so for my grandma who I will be spending Christmas day with now that the government has introduced ‘Christmas bubbles’ between 23-27 December.
But while I have accepted that these areas of my life, once deemed normal, are now a luxury, I may have naively forgotten about the implications of being in one very particular place: the gym.
While I haven’t experienced the same alien feeling being in the gym as I have in other crowded spaces, things are certainly not ‘normal’. I can’t ignore the masked faces or the taped flooring mapping out 2m boxes. The phrase ‘safe training’ used to mean using proper form and spotting each other where necessary, but now it’s about completely staying away from other gym members and wiping down your kit before and after use.
Gyms have worked hard in order to convince the government to allow them to remain open across all tiers in England during this time. Branches have completely changed the layout of their training stations, increased cleaning frequency, taken away certain pieces of kit and reduced the number of people who can be in classes at one time. The trainers may as well have had ‘cleaning’ and ‘policing members who don’t use sanitiser’ added to their job descriptions when many of them would probably quite like to avoid the general public themselves.
Nevertheless, there’s only so much that members of staff can do to limit the spread of a contagious disease in the middle of a pandemic. I have seen members of my gym not wiping down their dumbbells after using them. I have felt the presence of others walking far too close to me. I have had my square, the space allocated to each gym member while on the gym floor, cut into many, many times. I have heard groups of people (most often men, in my experience) causing arguments with staff members after being asked to stop training in groups or to refrain from blocking the doorway for from other members. So where does that leave me?
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I know that gyms have been classified as safe – early studies from the University of Oslo found that people who went to a gym were no more likely to get infected with coronavirus than people who didn’t. Data from Public Health England’s surveillance report, which is based on data from Test and Trace, found that the spread in gyms is 2.8%, while supermarkets are 11.2%, pubs and bars are 7.4%.
Plus, gyms offer less obvious opportunities for rule-breaking than, say, an alcohol-fuelled environment such as a pub (substantial meal or not). Most people want to go their gym, workout to benefit their physical and mental health and leave again, all while staying coronavirus free. Most people want to stay out of each other’s way and protect themselves and others by wiping down their equipment.
But the problem is that coronavirus is not selective. I am not going to be protected just because I am trying to follow the rules, and if I am in an environment where someone is putting others at risk, I then become part of that at-risk group. Personal intention is irrelevant when there is a disease on the loose – you don’t not get sick just because you tried hard not to. Collective responsibility is what is needed to limit the spread, and unfortunately many other people aren’t doing enough to protect other gym members.
So when I think about avoiding pubs, shops and outside gatherings of mates, the one question that remains is: should I also avoid the gym? The answer comes down to whether we see leisure facilities as a luxury space that we can simply avoid or an essential service. As with many other things this year, my attitude towards this has changed.
Pre-lockdown, the gym was a necessity for me. I never considered other ways to move my body because I loved my training – so why change it? During lockdown, I found other ways to exercise once gyms closed – or I’d have risked my mental health declining. Post-lockdown, I feel more privileged about my access to the gym, particularly as vulnerable people continue to stay home and shield and I realise the limitations to accessing fitness environments.
But I also can’t deny the fact that exercising in the gym is essential for both my mental health and my physical health. Not only does it make exercise more likely, enjoyable and tailored to my specific needs (I use heavy weights to protect my muscles and bones from scoliosis as opposed to intense cardio), I finish my workouts feeling more positive than I ever did at home.
Of course, sacrificing my own needs for a few weeks in order to protect my family is not an issue. The issue is that these public spaces should be areas in which we feel safe. As with everything in a coronavirus-infected world, any decision we make around health and safety is not black or white. There is no such thing as the ‘right’ decision, as everything we do has a consequence either mentally or physically.
I would love to continue going to the gym, but I just don’t feel that they are the safest places to be right now. I’m sending out a plea to the maskless sanitiser neglecters of the gym, asking them to be as considerate and careful as possible so that I don’t have to weigh up whether supporting my mental health by working out is worth putting my grandmother at risk. But until I know for sure that people will follow the rules, I guess I have some difficult decisions to make.
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Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).