Gyms open after six months but the road to recovery looks painful

Despite the enthusiasm, some people are still wary of returning to the gym
Sunil Kumar Taank’s phone has been ringing incessantly since Sunday night. With gyms being allowed to open in Delhi, many of Taank’s students, all aspiring bodybuilders, and members of his Black’s Gym chain have been calling to ask what working out in the Covid era might look like. He doesn’t mind all the queries; he’s just elated that gyms can operate again.

For months, gym owners in Delhi had been urging the Centre to allow them to resume business. They got the green light on August 3, but the Delhi Disaster Management Authority, headed by Lieutenant Governor Anil Baijal, overruled the decision because of the rising number of coronavirus cases. On Sunday night, Delhi Chief Secretary Vijay Dev issued a fresh order, giving gyms and yoga centres — only those outside contentment zones — the go-ahead to finally open after almost six months. Shower and sauna facilities at gyms, however, will remain shut. 

“It’s better late than ever,” says Taank, who is also president of the Indian Gym’s Welfare Federation. “We welcome the move, and now it’s all about following the guidelines and promoting fitness in a responsible way.” 

Chirag Sethi, founder of Classic Fitness Academy and vice-president at the Delhi Gym Association, says the first task is to make sure that all gyms under their wing adhere to the standard operating procedure (SOP) issued by the health ministry. “The first battle was with the government. Now the battle is to earn our livelihood,” says Sethi. “That will only be possible if we convince people that all precautions are being taken.”
Taank has already put in place stringent safety procedures. Apart from the rudimentary temperature check, members will have to carry an extra pair of shoes and book slots beforehand. At Black’s Gym, each slot will have 10-15 people — depending on the size of the outlet — and be spread across 90 minutes. Taank also plans to use a “tagging system”, wherein a member, after using a particular equipment, will place a red sticker on it. Once sanitised by the staff, the red tag will be replaced by a green one. 

Even as Taank insists that members will be required to wear masks or shields while working out, others feel this directive may be hard to follow in the gym. “During both strength training and cardio, your heart rate shoots up. In such a case, wearing a mask may be dangerous,” says Anurag Aditya, a personal trainer at Fitness First in Connaught Place. Fitness First will also follow the slot model (60 minutes), make gloves mandatory and reduce the strength of its group classes by half, to 15. The chain opened its Gurugram branch on Monday and hopes to do the same in Delhi on September 21.

Despite the enthusiasm, some people are still wary of returning to the gym, particularly since public gyms are seen as a breeding ground for germs, even in normal times. “For someone who’s not into weights, I get most of my exercise from yoga and running outdoors. And honestly, I haven’t felt the need to go to the gym all these months,” says Sanah Gill, a digital marketing professional from Delhi. Besides, the biggest benefit of having a gym membership is the freedom to walk in to exercise at any time. But that’s gone now.

Sethi, however, is hopeful that the inactivity of the past few months will push people to the gym. “In some ways, the gym is safer than the park. At least you know that everything has been disinfected,” he says. And, if you’re looking to boost your immunity, then exercise is the best way to do so, he adds.

Even so, the road to recovery looks painful. The pandemic has upended the lives of more than 100,000 people employed across some 5,000 gyms in Delhi. Many of the smaller ones have already shut down. And the established ones, which had to pay rent, electricity bills and staff salaries even during the lockdown, are bleeding. 

Taank says the period till February next year is the key to “survival”. Black’s Gym hopes to persuade clients to buy new short-term memberships, with the option to renew the existing ones later. Says Sethi: “This is us starting afresh. We need three months to build client confidence. If we can ensure that there are no positive cases, more people will be back in the gym.” 

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