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The term ‘eco-gym’ sounds pretty cool, right? … but are you still wondering what on earth that could mean in physical terms? Well, let me explain.

With our cardiovascular equipment, up to 74% of the energy that you create during your workout gets turned into utility-grade electricity via an inbuilt inverter. This means we have transformed our small gym into a little human power plant, offsetting our electrical costs and reducing our carbon footprint. 

Members can scan in via a QR code and watch their output in real-time on our TV screen, which also features a green leaderboard. Why on earth didn’t anybody invent this sooner? Surely ALL gyms should be operating like this? SportsArt, who supplied my equipment, has hit the nail on the head in my opinion. 

Since the launch in September last year, it was all running extremely well and the business was ticking along nicely. We were using our leaderboard system and offering incentives to give people focus and create goals. The motivation was high and the gym was buzzing. That was, until Coronavirus. 

Since 8pm on 20th March, the entire fitness industry has been tipped upside down, gyms emptied of their members, and doors locked until further notice. These past few weeks, in particular, have left me wondering: 

What are the long term effects of COVID-19 on the fitness industry?

There is no telling when we’ll get back to normal, or indeed what ‘normal’ will even look like. Almost overnight, Coronavirus has caused the industry to go digital. Along with my personal trainers, I have been running online classes via Zoom – from high-intensity style stuff to core conditioning, we have moved our entire regular gym class timetable online. 

We are finding ourselves competing with well-established online fitness offerings such as Pelaton and Fiit with nothing more than our iPhones and a tripod. We’ve certainly been thrown into the deep end and have had to adapt our coaching styles as well as brush up on our technical skills. 

It’s not come without its glitches of course – but from my tripod falling over during a warm-up to my 3-year-old shouting out “When’s dinner ready?” in the background during a cooldown, they have thankfully been more comical than disruptive. 

In a crisis like this, what comes through is the importance of good member service. If operators don’t know their members well, then members will feel less like they are part of a real fitness family, and will be more likely to cancel their membership. If the community element is strong however, they will want to stay on board. 

Several of my members have commented on how fit they are getting right now. The abundance of free online classes and having kit at home (my members were able to loan equipment, emptying the gym entirely, with the provision that they retained their membership) has meant they just have no excuse. 

I’ve also offered bespoke workouts, pre-recorded, and sent out via WhatsApp. They can’t claim that times don’t suit them anymore and, in most cases, they have more time on their hands. 

This is great, but this leads to the next big question: ‘What will happen when gyms and leisure centres reopen? Will people even WANT to come back? Will more people take health and fitness more seriously, and will we see a higher demand for gym memberships than ever before?’ 

Before Covid-19 struck, the industry was thriving; last year total UK gym membership broke the ten million mark and according to the UK Fitness Industry Report 2019, one in every seven people in the UK was a member of a gym before the outbreak. 

So, what does the future hold?

Some gym operators are worried that the more nervous gym-goers may not return as soon as the lockdown is lifted, and that they may struggle to attract new members who are anxious about the potential spread of the virus. But there is also plenty of speculation that many members will choose not to return to their gyms/studios or personal trainers at all once lockdown is lifted. 

Many people who have got used to managing to train from home might be reluctant to pay for physical membership again. Online fitness influencers may have started to become familiar faces over the last few months after all – and I also think many people may start to realise that by exercising at home they can perhaps get a little more family time. However things turn out, I’d imagine the big streaming platforms are seeing a big spike in subscriptions – unless you have access to a personal park, using online platforms to keep fit is your safest bet for now. 

Let’s get this into perspective though, not being able to go to the gym means more than just the loss of fitness. For many, it is part of a daily routine, offering social interaction that helps to ease anxiety and stress. With the current situation likely to have a negative impact on our mental health, the sudden absence of familiar places and people can feel all the more difficult. 

For the millions in self-isolation, online exercise classes have helped ease the worry caused by the pandemic. And for the hundreds of small independent gyms like mine, going digital has proven to be a lifeline to help our businesses survive. 

However, even fitness influencer Matt Roberts points out this is not the future and “they work for now”. It’s not the same as the personal sessions. As Les Mills Head of Research at Bryce Hastings points out “…we really are social animals when it comes to working out. When you maximise the group effect, this leads to a high level of what we’ve termed ‘groupness’. And the higher level of groupness, the more we see increases in a person’s enjoyment, satisfaction, and exertion.”  (welltodoglobal.com)

I’ve always felt like a very little fish in a very big pond with my gym but suddenly I feel very fortunate. I think smaller facilities with smaller membership bases may have the opportunities that bigger operations do not. 

We can help people feel reassured by minimising the risk of infection through manageable enhanced hygiene procedures. Being a small facility means the number of users at any one time is limited and we can keep on top of hourly cleans very easily. And the fact that we are a real community breeds the kind of trust we need to foster. 

As mental health is put under pressure from the deep uncertainty of the situation we find ourselves in, it is going to be important to build on those social interactions and create even more of a community, one that recognises the ways that physical and mental health complement each other.

But the thing that gives me hope for the future of fitness is the ‘eco-factor’. This has already shown itself to be a fantastic selling point to help my own gym stand out and be different, and interest has grown steadily, with more than ever people becoming more environmentally conscious. But the pandemic takes this to a new level. As the UN’s environment chief, Inger Andersen, put it; ‘nature is sending us a message that if we neglect the planet, we put our wellbeing at risk. (The Guardian)

An eco-gym might have looked like a frill or a fad just six months ago, but in the light of the pandemic, it seems like the clearest way forward: planetary health has to be at the heart of personal health. 

This crisis has forced so many of us to stop in our tracks and re-evaluate all aspects of our wellbeing. The fitness industry under lockdown is shifting and adapting – and once it is over, if anything, I think more of us than ever before will realise the importance of our fitness and wellbeing. Coronavirus is another reminder that life is short and we only get one body to live in – and one planet to live on. We need to treat both well. 

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