Cast your mind back to The Before Times. The lights are dimmed. The music is pumping. You’re dripping in sweat. You’re buzzing.
No, this is not a basement club, but a familiar scene at London’s boutique fitness studios, where, in the old days, enthusiastic instructors would end each class by giving out sweaty high fives. It feels almost unimaginable now.
London’s gyms and fitness studios have been closed since March 21 after Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered all venues to close apart from non-essential shops. But with the city slowly opening up again, what does the future look like for the capital’s gym scene?
In the government’s Our Plan to Rebuild document, published on Monday May 11, gyms and fitness studios were set to be part of step three. In the document, this stage groups together leisure facilities and hospitality, stating that reopening venues in these categories ‘may only be fully possible significantly later depending on the reduction in numbers of infections’. When it was released, the document said this step would come into action no earlier than July 4. With that in mind, many gyms were working towards reopening on July 4.
However, in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement on Tuesday (June 23), he confirmed that gyms and fitness studios would remain closed for now, although outdoor gyms can reopen. Following Johnson’s announcement, secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport Oliver Dowden tweeted suggesting that gyms could still open in July. He said: ‘Subject to public health, our aspiration is to reopen gyms & leisure facilities in mid-July.’
While gyms have been closed, the way people work out has had to change – and fast. Virtual workouts on the likes of Zoom and Instagram Live have become commonplace and sales of home workout equipment have soared. John Lewis has reported a whopping increase of 496 percent on sales of gym equipment. Meanwhile, the number of London-based studios hosting digital workouts through fitness class-booking app ClassPass increased from 500 to 4,000 in April and May.
But if people have finally sourced some dumbbells or actually quite like doing yoga in their living rooms now, will anyone want to go back to the gym? Sport England has been commissioning a weekly survey throughout lockdown, looking at activity levels across the country. In one of its latest surveys, respondents said social distancing was their top concern about going back to gyms. Despite this, people are keen to return to normality, with 84 percent of gym or leisure centre members saying they were likely to resume their membership when facilities reopen, as well as 27 percent of non-members saying they would be likely to join a gym. The research also found that going to the gym is the top physical activity that respondents are looking forward to resuming.
James Balfour, co-founder of boutique fitness studio 1Rebel, which has seven branches across London, is confident people will return. ‘People often have gyms in their apartment blocks but they don’t go to those because they’re not busy with people, they have no atmosphere, great music or inspiring instructors. I’m 100 percent convinced that people want to come back and have that experience again.’
Balfour says the company was working towards reopening on July 4, but now everything’s up in the air. ‘At one point there were rumours it would be October, but we’ve got no guidance as to when it could actually be, which is pretty frustrating.’
What is clear, though, is that when gyms can re-open, it won’t be business as usual. Although the government has yet to release official guidance for reopening gyms, industry body UKactive has been working with a panel of industry experts, including Balfour, to draw up a framework to present to the government on how gyms could reopen. The document covers cleaning regimes, social distancing and new safety measures. For example, on gym floors, people will only be permitted to use equipment that’s spaced two metres apart and a gym’s maximum capacity will be calculated based on three metres squared per person. Changing rooms and showers will be in use but ‘extra care’ will be provided to maintain social distancing in these areas, while sweat towels will not be permitted on gym floors or studios.
Having guidelines is useful, but how this works in practice will vary massively between venues. Keeping on top of what equipment has been used (and therefore needs to be cleaned) in a workout class with 20 people is one thing, but how do you keep track of all the equipment on a gym floor? Caoimhe Bamber, co-founder of fitness studio Digme, which has five branches in London, thinks it will be easier for studios to reopen than gyms. ‘Our workouts are spot-booked, so we can limit capacity and we know which equipment has been touched.’ She thinks it will be ‘very challenging’ for gyms to trace the movements of visitors using multiple pieces of equipment. Is this the end of the free weights area as we know it?
Gym floors will certainly look different. Marco Coppola, group health and fitness manager at GLL which owns Better leisure centres, 116 of which are in London, says there will be approximately 50 percent less equipment in its gyms, in order to help customers observe social distancing. As well as spacing out equipment, Coppola says they’ll be looking at repurposing some spaces, such as using the squash courts, as a stretch zone, to allow more people to use the equipment in the gym (sorry, squash players). You’ll have to get used to forward planning, too, as customers will need to pre-book all sessions, which will be limited to one hour. There will be cleaning products at each gym station for customers, as well as an ‘enhanced cleaning regime’ throughout the day.
Whether it’s a massive branch of a gym chain or a tiny pilates studio, all venues will need to put new measures in place. ClassPass says more than half of the gyms and studios on the app have plans to reduce their capacity. ‘The biggest shift customers should expect is smaller class sizes’, says Rose Yan, the app’s director of international pricing and inventory. Before, customers might be concerned about free towels or bougie toiletries, but now people will want to know what safety measures are in place. To help with this, ClassPass is introducing a new feature which will ‘offer visibility into the sanitation routines, PPE requirements and detailed policies of each studio location’, says Yan.
Many have already started the process of making their venues virus-secure. Over the last few weeks, 1Rebel has been doing ‘an extensive reprogramme of the entire customer experience’, says Balfour. Masks will be optional, but there will be a self-scanning device at the entrance to check customers’ temperatures. ‘An email will go to the front of house person and an alert will go off if they have a high temperature.’ It might sound slightly dystopian, but it’s set to become commonplace. In classes, there will be dividers between equipment so that ‘you feel you’re in your own personal space’.
Like many in the leisure industry, Balfour is hoping the rules for social distancing will be relaxed when gyms do reopen. The company is also exploring new initiatives: ‘There might be friend zones, where you could workout with people you live with, without needing to keep two metres apart.’
Many gyms were prepping to reopen in July, but now, with no indication as to when they will be allowed to welcome back customers or what the rules will be, venue owners are finding it hard to plan. Dan Percival, founder of Crouch End and Borough-based studio 3Tribes says it’s ‘a real nightmare’ and is holding off redesigning the layout of the bikes in the gym’s spin room until he knows more. In the meantime, he’s launched outdoor classes in nearby Priory Park, where he’s booked the pavilion area that’s often hired out for birthdays and events. Launched in early June, the classes have a maximum capacity of five people alongside one instructor. The gym provides equipment such as weights but participants are required to bring their own exercise mats. Percival says that while the gym will eventually scale back on its Zoom classes, the outdoor sessions will continue even when the gym reopens, in order to offer customers ‘as much functionality as possible’.
Even with new safety measures in place, it’s likely that many Londoners will continue to get their exercise endorphins virtually, at least for some of their workouts. A recent ClassPass survey found that 65 percent of members plan to continue with digital workouts, either as a way to completely replace in-person classes or as something to do in combination with them. In March, when gyms were shut down, London fitness studios were quick to offer free live workouts via Instagram Stories, with instructors hosting classes from empty gyms or an exercise mat in their living rooms. Now, many of the city’s gyms have launched paid-for virtual classes, offering a more slick experience. Ed Stanbury, co-founder of Blok, a studio with branches in Clapton and Shoreditch, says digital fitness is a trend that’s here to stay. ‘Whereas a typical Blok member may have previously been in the studio five times a week, they might now come in three times a week and do a couple of sessions from home.’
Over the last few months, virtual workouts have been a necessity, but there are some long-lasting upsides to working out from home – not having to leave your house to work out, for one thing. Maiken Skoie Brustad, a personal trainer and instructor at the likes of Blok, Third Space and Rumble Gym, has been teaching virtual classes as well as Zoom PT sessions with her regular one-to-one clients. She says the transition has been relatively straightforward. ‘It’s a lot easier for [the clients], they just have to wake up 15 minutes before the session,’ she explains. ‘It’s easy for me too, I don’t have to leave my house.’
Brustad has also been offering one-to-one sessions in local parks, with clients bringing their own equipment. When gyms are able to reopen, though, she’s keen to get back. ‘Personally, I’m comfortable going back to teaching indoors when it can happen.’ And as for those post-workout high fives? That’s something Brustad has already come up against. ‘I need to remind myself that I can’t give people hugs or a high five when they’re done’, she says. She’s got a solution, though. ‘We do air high fives instead now.’ That’s that sorted, then.