A question on a lot of people’s minds lately is, “Should gyms be considered an essential service?” The hashtag #openthegyms is currently trending on Twitter. Ireland has entered into its second lockdown as of the 22nd October, and much like in March, retailers, restaurants, and salons have closed. Gyms have been forced to shut again. However, this lockdown is a bit different from the one that hit in March. The main difference is schools have remained open, even though they were one of the first things to shut when the virus first hit. This lockdown is trying to keep people safe but also allow for the essential services, like education, to be able to run as smoothly as possible. School education is deemed an essential service, as it should be, despite the fact there is an undeniable risk when there’s up to 1,000 students and staff in one place at one time, and up to 30 people in one classroom.
Exercise is often noted as essential to keep the human body happy and healthy, so it begs the question, should gyms be considered an essential service?
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The Importance of Exercise
It is a basic human requirement to exercise. Look at any recommendation on living a healthier life; you’ll probably find the same old suggestion that one hour of exercise a day is crucial. Exercise is essential for a healthy body and mind; it helps you sleep, and it increases energy levels. Another thing you’ll read is that one size does not fit all when it comes to exercise. While running outdoors is someone’s idea of heaven, it is another’s idea of hell. You won’t ever stick to a good exercise routine unless you find something that works for you. For many people, going to the gym is part of that routine, and the loss of it will be detrimental to their mental and physical health. You can read more here on the importance of exercise.
Why Gyms Specifically Are Important
Can gyms be considered an essential service then? Gyms, and the fitness industry in general, gets a bad rap for being a superficial hobby. Perhaps for some, it is purely somewhere to build muscle or lose weight for vanity reasons, and honestly, as long as this isn’t taken too far, there’s nothing wrong with that. To each their own. However, what many people can misunderstand about the gym and its importance is what it does for the mind. For some people, it is their only time to alleviate stress and work off any frustration; during a lockdown, people have a lot of both. If the gym has never been this saving grace for you, it may be difficult to understand why it is important for so many but just because the gym does not positively impact your mental health, does not mean it is not crucial for someone else’s. There are a few reasons why gyms specifically are important.
Gyms provide expensive equipment such as weights, machines, and racks, that simply are not affordable for the average gym user; if they were, people wouldn’t need gyms. It is a fantastic thing to be able to pay a monthly membership fee to access a gym (often between €30-70) when a set of 5kg dumbbells cost €45 alone. Racks can start at €800, cages, which provide a safe space to lift heavy weights can be up to €2,000. Cardiovascular machines like spin bikes or treadmills go anywhere from €250 to €900.
The space you can get while in a gym is both physical and mental. To be out of the house and somewhere else for an hour, particularly when everything else is closed is so important. As for physical space, even if someone can afford gym equipment, most people do not live somewhere that they could place it all safely – again, if this were possible, gyms would lose their niche. Gyms are designed to provide a safe place to workout and the correct amount of space to do so.
Gyms provide a safe place to work out, to improve upon one’s self. For many people, that one hour in the gym can be the difference between a good and a bad day. If you’ve had a bad day in work, particularly if you work from home, escaping can be essential. If you’re someone that hates running or finds walking doesn’t do enough, or can’t afford to buy dumbbells or other weight lifting mechanisms, then the gym may be the only place to clear your mind. People throw the term mental health around a lot these days, but to break the stigma of talking about it, we have to talk about it. Read here for the mental health benefits of exercise.
Why Gyms Aren’t the Problem During COVID
Very few COVID-19 outbreaks have been linked with gyms. Back in March, given the way gyms were run, it made sense that they needed to close. Equipment was squashed tightly together and there were no rules about how many people could be in the gym at once, often leading to an overpacked environment. However, since they were allowed to reopen at the end of June, gyms have changed their ways radically. In Flyefits, you had to book a 75-minute slot a day in advance, and once the slot was full, no one else could get in. When arriving at the premise, a trainer would tick off your name and ask you to sanitise your hands and have your temperature checked. Upon entering the gym floor, it was clear the machines had been spaced out to allow for the 2-metre distance, and there were sanitisation stations all over, as well as towels and sprays to wipe down machines once finished with them. Failing to abide by any of these rules meant you risked a ban, and rightfully so. In the 15 minutes between one gym slot and another, the staff wiped down all the machinery to ensure they were sanitised for the next group of people. As transmission has not been linked to gyms, it makes little sense they have been forced to shut when all they do during this difficult time is benefit people.
Mental Health Vs. Physical Health
The argument for gyms closing is that it is selfish for them to be open. However, no one is being forced to attend a gym – for those that do benefit from walks and jogs and home workouts alone, then they should continue to do so. There may be some who love the gym, but in Level 5 would prefer not to go, and that’s perfectly fine too. But is it fair to expect everyone’s mental health to be treated in the same way? Of course, some people should avoid places like gyms, if they are high risk or prone to infection, or live with someone who is; these same people should be avoiding anywhere that can put themselves or their household at risk – but it is important that while we all try to shield ourselves from COVID-19 on behalf of our physical health, we should not forget to treat our mental health too.
The gyms being open does not mean vulnerable or uncomfortable people have to go. It means those who would suffer without it can go. If opening the gyms means cutting the number of people who can go in half, so be it. If it means people who live with at-risk members of society can’t go, then at least they’ll be an option for some people. Perhaps the way they’re currently run can be improved, to further restrict the spread of COVID-19. It is worth trying to figure this out.
Whether you believe it’s right gyms be considered an essential service, for yourself as an individual, you may want to consider what they might mean for someone else. If you still disagree that they should reopen, at least consider judging people less who are advocating for gyms – you never know what a person is going through or what can make all the difference to them. If you believe gyms should be made essential, you can sign the petition here.
If you have any tips for gym lovers trying to get their exercise fix during this difficult time, please leave them in the comments below!
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