Sweat Equity: Reap the Physical and Mental Health Benefits of Exercise

Sweat Equity

The value of physical and mental fitness during these uncertain times is priceless. Photo: Rodney Smith/Trunk Archive

What is your sanity worth? From $0 for virtual classes to $2,000 for Peloton bikes, the value of physical and mental fitness during the pandemic is priceless.

Are you itching for time on the elliptical? Pining for the pull-up bars? Longing for the leg press? If you were a gym regular before the COVID-19 pandemic and have yet to return, you’re probably yearning for more than just premium fitness equipment. “Most people are coming back for their mental health,” Rhonda Blewett, a long-time personal trainer and instructor at Anytime Fitness in Vancouver, said in November. “They’ve been locked up so long.” 

Anytime Fitness closed in March 2020, reopened with capacity restrictions that June, and operated as normal — with safety protocols like disinfection of gym equipment — until B.C. shuttered gyms again on Dec. 21, 2021, due to the new wave of Omicron infections. (That month, they were reporting exposures at a fitness centre in Ottawa, a gym in Clarenville, N.L., and a racquet club in Yellowknife, to name a few.) But if attendance in the fall was any indication, many gym members will return as soon as possible. “Some people do really well with at-home exercise, but not everybody can get motivated,” said Blewett.

Throughout the pandemic, gym re-openings have varied depending on the province and even the municipality, but by late 2021 and early 2022, they were shut down again in Ontario, Quebec and B.C., while Nova Scotia and Manitoba had imposed capacity restrictions.

When gyms closed during the first wave, many offered online classes and personal training. “I was thinking, I’ve got to do something to help these clients,” said Nadia Bender, owner of Fitness that Fits, in Toronto. She loaned out hand weights and gliders, and has been leading training over Zoom for 22 months, through three separate shutdowns. If people didn’t have fitness equipment at home, it didn’t matter. “I did workouts with a chair, or a broomstick.” When Omicron shut her studio down in January, Bender started renting out equipment. 

 

Home Exercise

 

Home exercise is better than no exercise. In an April 2020 online survey of more than 1,000 Americans and Canadians over 50, by researchers at the University of Maryland, those who were most physically active during the 2020 lockdown were least likely to feel depression-like symptoms.

Chris Ince, owner of Entrainement U.N.I. Training in Montreal, said there were a few hurdles to moving online. “Our older population had to get up to speed, if they weren’t so tech savvy.” It also meant taking a hit in fees, as people normally paid an average of $10 a class. “We offered group classes for free, and we reduced the price of one-on-one training sessions by 30 per cent. It was hard work and sacrifice, but ultimately, our goal was to make sure people continued staying healthy.” The investment paid off, because existing members who had previously exercised on their own gravitated toward online personal training, and kept it up in person when they came back to the gym. 

Bender has clients who stayed online even during re-openings, because it was safer or more convenient. “Obviously, the price points are different, so it also helps people who have financial issues,” she noted. She charges $80 a month for online classes at Fitness that Fits, about 60 per cent of the regular rate. 

All gyms are subject to safety regulations when they are open, which may include proof of vaccination, reduced capacity, physical distancing and mask-wearing when not at a workout station. Many gym owners said they went above and beyond these government mandates. “We’ve always tried to stay three steps ahead of whatever regulations are announced,” said Hayley Flegel, co-owner of Opex Fitness Regina. While she once had an open-gym format, now her space is transformed into individual stations, with barriers in between. “Our clients love it! They’re like VIP spots.”

Her facility did lose members when they closed, despite offering remote coaching. But when she reopened, new clients streamed in. Thanks to the care she has taken — her staff are required to be vaccinated — her revenue increased by about 20 per cent in late 2021, compared to pre-pandemic times. Flegel recommended asking gym operators what steps they’re taking to reduce the risk of exposure. “If you’re still unsure, talk to somebody who already comes here.”

For evidence that people grew tired of exercising at home, look no further than Peloton Interactive Inc.’s rocky road. When the first lockdown hit, there were weeks-long wait lists for the company’s stationary bikes – which started at $2,950 for the basic model (now $1,895), not including the $50-a-month fee for live, online classes and the $100-plus shoes. The New York-based fitness equipment company’s sales were up 250 per cent in early 2020. But as gyms reopened, shares plummeted and, in November, the company estimated that 2022 revenue would be down by as much as a billion dollars. 

Ince said the over-45 age group was least hesitant about coming back, and noted few people have the setup at home to progress with their fitness goals. “Everybody else is just maintaining — or regressing. There’s much more benefit to going to a location.”

If you live in a place where gyms are open, Blewett suggested going during off-hours. “Obviously it’s still a bit scary,” she added. “But this is going to keep going on for a while. And at some point, you’ve just got to live.”

If in-person workouts aren’t an option and you’d rather invest in basic home equipment, budget between $190 and $400 to buy essentials like hand weights, strength bands, a stepper, a stability ball, an exercise mat and a pair of gliding discs.

Regardless of what the pandemic throws at us next, home fitness equipment will see you through any subsequent waves of COVID-19. While gyms have reopened, you may decide to wait it out a bit. The opportunity and cost of exercising at home or in a gym is different for everyone. The most important thing is to keep fit, so make sure that Peloton doesn’t turn into the most expensive clothes rack you’ve ever purchased. 

A version this article appeared in the Feb/Mar 2022 issue with the headline ‘Sweat Equity,’ p. 62.

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