End of March, soon after the Government of India, imposed a nation-wide lockdown to counter the menace of COVID-19, I was asked to speak on an online forum about the status of Fitness post-COVID-19.
Well, there is no life post-COVID-19. We now have to live with this virus running through us just as the earlier pathogens are doing. In this case too, we will sooner than later discover a vaccine. Experts say it could take anything between 12 and 24 months for this panacea to reach us. Vaccine or no vaccine, we have to adapt ourselves and keep the virus within control.
Adapt to the future!
Each one of us now has to adjust to the new reality. Sooner than later, schools and colleges, factories and businesses, restaurants and cafés, hotels and resorts, fitness centers and spas and all that is dear to us in daily lives will reopen but life will not be “as usual”.
And as in life, Fitness must – and, will – also adapt!
Of all the service industries, Fitness is the most unique. Clients come in daily – or, are expected to. Architects, lawyers, doctors, restaurants, etc. do not have the (same) clients turning up daily! In Fitness, thus, the risk of exposure to infection (and interpersonal “friction”) is thus infinitely higher. Solutions thus need to be specific and adaptable to situations thrown up in weight training, group exercise or “cardio” and other exercise formats.
Physical distance between two individuals now is 1.5 meters. That is understandable where individuals are standing patiently in a queue. But, what ought to be the distances when we are active?
Research done in universities in Europe and USA suggests distances between two individuals thus –
- Standing as in a queue – at least 1.5 meters
- Walking –at least 5 meters so that the droplets do not reach the person walking behind
- Running and slow cycling – at least 10 meters
- For hard cycling or city commuting on a motor bike – at least 20 meters
Researchers have observed that the aerodynamic effect produced by a person’s movement leaves the trailing person at high risk. The person behind gets into the slipstream produced by the person ahead. Air flow patterns are created by the movement and ventilation air currents including those due to air circulators, air conditioners, etc. When a person is walking from front and past you, it is advisable to change the lane and / or stay out of the slipstream of the person ahead.
A similar conclusion has been arrived at by a researcher in Massachusetts Institute of Technology – Lydia Bourouiba, associate professor and expert in fluid dynamics. She reports that peak exhalation speeds of the droplets can reach 10 to 30 meters per second creating a cloud spanning seven to eight meters.
If outdoor exercise, running or cycling can find a person in the slipstream of the person ahead, what can happen in the fitness center with an air circulation system? During January – February, 2020, an outbreak of COVID-19 in an air-conditioned restaurant in Guangzhou, China, involved three family clusters. The airflow direction was consistent with droplet transmission prompted by air-conditioned ventilation.
The key factor for infection therefore is not just the distance but the direction of the airflow. In a fitness center with an air conditioning system or with pedestal or ceiling fans or cross-ventilation through windows and doors, it is more than likely that clients will get caught in air draughts. Exercisers and sportspersons exhale forcefully during activity, some of them may sneeze or cough with the microdroplets being transmitted over longer distances. The member “downwind” of the person sneezing is at a high risk.
Personal Hygiene & Etiquette
Till now, most of us took personal hygiene seriously but we took public hygiene for granted. The lockdown has now compelled us to observe public hygiene norms more seriously than ever before.
Masks and gloves will be part of our garments – like the way we carry umbrellas and wear raincoats. Every exerciser is well advised to carry and use his/her own mask, gloves and, at least, two towels – one to cover the surface on which to lie upon and the other to dry the face and arms. In the gym, we will now be more careful of cleaning the bench or the treadmill’s railings and dashboard. We will be more careful to rack the weights in their rightful place. We will be more mindful of the cleanliness of the lockers and changing areas, “wet” and “dry” alike.
Shaking hands and giving hugs will be reserved for the closest and the dearest at home. A graceful “namastey” will suffice. Touching elbows or fists too will be a no-no. Each one of us will strive to reduce exposure to the microdroplets travelling through the air and landing on fomites.
Perhaps, the most pronounced behavioral feature will be the sense of unjustified suspicion, at least, over the next two years or so. Perhaps, as vaccines begin to be easily available, this sense of suspicion and fear will diminish. This in turn will influence our social relationships. Man is the social animal will now be a socially distanced animal. Outside our homes, in the offices and gyms alike, the physical distances will be a reality. All transactions – physical, social, cultural and economic – will be from more than an arm’s length. We will miss it but soon get used to the fact that after a person successfully completes a challenging set in weight training, he or she will not get a friendly, congratulatory hug.
We will not turn into asocial animals. As psychologists point out, people under stress, especially when there is a common threat such as a pandemic, tend to group together. With social distancing, people will thus depend more on social media which, till just a few months ago, was considered to be encouraging asocial behavior! We will certainly become more dependent on social media and digital tools that will help us protect our expanded envelope of personal space. I expect individuals to be “territorial” and zealously guard their virus-free space.
All the above will be relevant to the individual exerciser and the individual trainer as much as to the fitness center. A trainer used to be in close vicinity of the client. Now he will have to be at least a few meters away.
As in other spheres of life, in Fitness too, the individual will extract value for money. Minimum time, maximum value. None of us are going to hang around in the gym for more time than necessary. We will return to our own personal sanctuaries as quickly as possible.
How ought the fitness center to adapt to the new individual?
Tough question! But, let us try to answer it step by step. Let’s be optimistic – each problem will have a solution that can be turned into a unique sales proposition (USP)!
Social distancing measures
Maintaining a linear distance of five meters between weight training machines is neither commercially viable nor physically possible in India. In the USA, generally, each member has 1.5 square meters. But this was before the pandemic. Given the population density, prohibitive cost of floor space and low revenue yields in India, the USA standards are impractical. If the gym wants a larger space, it will do well to get rid of machines that are redundant. Almost every gym has machines – 20% of the total machines, by one estimate – that are rarely used. Increase physical space and financial liquidity! In these circumstances, the layout will have to factor in a per-member space of at least nine square meters.
Gyms are well-advised to invest in washable, cheerful material to screen each machine around its footprint. This will prevent the microdroplets travelling longer distances. Of course, I humbly suggest, the entire layout will have to be rearranged such that traffic flows in a logical direction. For example, machines can be sequenced in the order of legs, chest, back and shoulders with free weights in centralized location. The area for “abs” and floor exercises will have to be in a well-ventilated corner. Such layout will minimize cross-traffic and even facilitate easier access to circuit training. Logical extension will be that cardio machines ought to be in a separate room or physically partitioned area of the gym, again with machines screened off from each other.
Trainers will need to rely on verbal cueing or demonstrating, all from a linear distance of at least 1.5 meters.
Public hygiene awareness
The client’s hygiene awareness will have to be supported proactively by the fitness center. The owner – manager will have to –
- Social distancing starts at the front office desk. Do not allow the members to check-in on the computer keyboard or the fingerprints reader – it is worth investing a small amount in a smart phone app if possible. Else, designate one staffer to do the entries on behalf of the clients.
- Educate! Explain to the client the gym’s newer, higher standards of public hygiene. Examples:
- Client is expected to clean the machine before and after use with the liquid disinfectant or soap.
- Client will not be allowed entry without his personal “kit” of towel/s, masks, gloves, shoes exclusively for indoor gym use.
- The exerciser is now expected to load the barbell before use and then unload it – and return the plates to the plate “trees”.
- Remind! Put up posters and hanging “mobiles” reminding clients about their responsibilities. The most effective reminder will be to have the gym team proactively cleaning the machines, of course sufficiently protected against infections.
- Clean! Have a clearly designated day for a thorough cleaning operation – not just running the perfunctory vacuum cleaner or the broom. The housekeepers will have to literally hunt for dust and grime! Clean the air-conditioners and keep them clean. The amount of dust and pathogens in the filters and vents / ducts can be huge!
- Improve! The gym must improve its housekeeping systems, staff and equipment. There are now available, top quality cleaning and disinfecting materials at reasonable prices.
The fabric screens in themselves will contribute to the sense of hygiene security. The posters and “mobiles” will also help!
Trainers’ communications skills will be tested severely. The client’s time as much as the trainer’s like the space occupied in the club will at premium value. I thus foresee trainers planning the clients’ exercises and mentally rehearsing the session the day before. Nothing can be left to chance to ensure a fluid, safe session! The days of the trainer admiring his own 6-pack while the client is huffing on his own belly are now over. Eye-to-eye contact is the key to future communication. Trust and teaching skills, not visual impressions, will count not only in the gym but also in on-line training.
Gyms will now actively look at “tele-fitness” or long-distance fitness via online digital tools. The members need not come in daily. For example, once a week is adequate if the gym can motivate and monitor online his home workouts. Decongestion of the exercise areas is the mantra without losing sight of the need to bolster revenues.
All know exercise in the long run will help people destress and raise their immunity. The window of opportunity for infections to creep in the hour immediately after workout can be neutralized by a balanced management of smart workout intensity and smarter nutrition. Psychologists are absolutely right when the observe that people will band together physically in a public emergency – particularly when the cause is mysterious and not yet controllable through vaccines to prevent and specific drugs to manage the virus.
With minimum physical distancing now part of life, social media will be the channel for coming together. But is social media adequate for us Indians? We have been brought up in a society where families, extended families, neighbors, friends intermingle intimately. Seeing a smile is good but seeing it in person – even if is 1.5 meters away – will be wonderful! So, here’s an idea to gym owners who have some reasonable space available, preferably outdoors: develop a garden or if indoors, a cozy “nook” where members can relax and “commune” for a short, happy while.
Gym owners are more often than not businessmen who have no clue of Fitness Sciences. On the other hand, there are fitness professionals who have no business acumen. Fitness in India is definitely getting corporatized but unfortunately the organization mimics the ones you will find in other businesses. Fitness is not any other business, for God’s sake! No amount of line and staff matrices will help a chain of gyms if the men and women at the helm have no clue about fitness in its widest sense. Just weight training knowledge is not sufficient just as knowledge of a group exercise format is inadequate. I see now flatter organization of gyms.
The managers will need to be trained and skilled in looking after a whole array of functions – from sales conversions to fitness assessment and program development through operations to legal and accounting issues. There are 16 types of Fitness and eight general categories of training methodologies. There are different types of members who can be offered a variety of memberships! It was always difficult to get member in the best of times. Now, it will be tougher to get them back into the gyms and even harder to retain them. Exercise psychology is the tool to retain the members. Every staff member will need solid knowledge of First Aid & CPR with AED. Trainers will need to be not just certified but trained to face interviews by clients who will now want to know the caliber of the person training them.
A fitness center typically deals with population living within a certain number of kilometers from its location. The manager will need to know how many residents will have access to it. In this case, you can make estimates based on the number of apartments in the complex. A goal of enrolling 20% of the population ought to be worthwhile. Of this target population of 20%, how many do you think will use the equipment in any given hour? You should plan on 10% of the expected tenant population to use the facility in a given hour. We would expect 35% of the target population to be in the center on a daily basis.
How much space will you allot for weight training, cross training, cardio, group exercise, etc? It will be advisable to determine the space available and then work out the equipment and facilities that can be paid out as per financial budget and social distancing norms. Where can you save on space and budget? For example, I’d recommend dual-use machines in weight training. One machine serves two or even more exercise functions. What ought to be the balance between cable & pulley machines, plate-loaded machines and free weights? How much “poundage” will you load the machines with? How many programs will you have on your cardio machine? Every plate of weight and program costs you money! All this will depend on the “user profile” of the potential members.
Online training like online education has not yet taken root in Indian culture. We still want to see the trainer or the teacher in person. We live in family environment that encourages joint family communications. We are voluble, expressive, emotional and above all kinesthetic. We want to be “close”. So, I do not see online training taking over from personal training. The gyms and trainers will thus see three types of training: personal or floor training, online training and off-site training. The third type is training, one-on-one, on the beach or in the park or even in schools – that is, outside the gyms. Most Indian cities are seeing portions of their parks being converted into “green gyms”.
All three will see further permutations and combinations.
In India. is there a training program to equip fitness center owners and managers for the challenged ahead? Well, our Gāyo Fitness Academy offers the Certificate Course in Fitness Center Management which is approved and certificated by the University of Mumbai affiliated BPCA’s College of Physical Education. Visit https://www.gayofitnessacademy.com/course/certificate-course-in-fitness-centre-management-ccfcm/
Fitness center managers will have to innovate and come up with out-of-the-box solutions. Revenue now will have to be looked at exactly the way an airline or hotel does: not just per client yield but per square meter yield. Gyms will have to look at off-site sources of revenues. Ironically, social media alone will not help promote the fitness products unless the messaging is fresh and inspirational as much as aspirational. The target market cannot be taken for granted. There are 16 fitness types and eight training technologies. This translates into 128 permutations and combinations of member types – at the very least! The market thus opens up provided the gym and the trainers develop the skills sets necessary in the times to come. Huffing a weight or puffing the chest is now passé. Of course, there will be clients seeking myofibrillar or sarcoplasmic hypertrophy and there will be those wanting to lose body fat. But there are others too waiting to be identified and invited onto the training floor.
What about the trainers? They will necessarily need to be well trained and certified. A certificate course that teaches the practical implications of Exercise Sciences and has a large content of practical training will help. It is not a coincidence that the trainers who are succeeding in home / online training now are those who have mastered exercise formats like Pilates, functional training, etc. Have you noticed the huge number of personal trainers who ask the client to complete “cardio” by the time he arrives to help out with just weight training? What if the trainer decided to help the client not only with weight training but also with warm-up, cardio and cool down? Will this not add value to the service he provides to the client and in the process add to his own income? Do check out our Mumbai University Certificate Course for Personal Fitness Trainers jointly conducted with BPCA’s College of Physical Education – https://www.gayofitnessacademy.com/course/certificate-course-in-personal-fitness-training-ccpft/
I will also draw your attention to my careers related bogs – https://www.gayofitnessacademy.com/blog/
Both fitness centers and trainers will perforce have to approach fitness holistically. Wellness will be the true north of every client and therefore all possible exercise formats alternative therapies will have to be deployed. Fitness will be a team game now on – it is not just the fitness center manager and persona trainers but also sports physiotherapists, exercise physiologists, nutritionists and alternative therapists who will all work together.
Till recently, most Indian fitness centers did not take documentation seriously. Due diligence in client interview and fitness assessment, medical condition screening, exercise prescription and the training itself will now need to be recorded in detail. The consumer will be more aware of his rights. Caveat Emptor – buyer beware! I expect members to interview the trainer and inspect the facilities with greater care.
It is time we learn and adapt. This is a golden opportunity for all stakeholders to innovate, improve and lead fitter Fitness businesses.