May 13, 2021

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Health & Fitness

Exercising caution: Charlottesville fitness centers adapt to new health protocols | Sports

It’s been three months since gyms and fitness centers in the Charlottesville area began reopening under guidance from Gov. Ralph Northam. While guidance has changed, the COVID-19 pandemic has not gone away, making reopening a challenge.

Throughout the summer, fitness centers leaned on their teams to create innovative plans to safely open while knowing some members wouldn’t quite yet be ready to return.

Uncertainty about the immediate and long-term future of gyms and indoor fitness facilities remains constant, but that hasn’t stopped a few Charlottesville facilities from aiming to provide a quality experience to current and new members.

Member return

Charlottesville’s ACAC locations opened in early June, and some members have returned. While the volume of returners varies by location, and there were people who canceled their memberships, others have happily resumed indoor workouts.

There’s also a collection of gym goers who haven’t returned to the indoor fitness facility, but take part in virtual classes or outdoor offerings.

“We’re feeling really good about it,” Susan Johnson, ACAC’s vice president of marketing and communications, said of the return rate. “Not all members are quite ready to come back, but we’re encouraging them to come in, see you how you feel. We think you’re gonna feel pretty good.”

The Piedmont Family YMCA says about 60% of its members returned to the facility over the summer.

That number seems impressive, according to a survey by RunRepeat.com. The site surveyed just over 5,000 gym members in early August, and approximately 30% of gym members returned to their facilities. The survey found that roughly 35% of Virginia gym members surveyed had returned.

While the online survey isn’t a perfect representation of the habits of gym members and it’s a relatively small sample, the survey adds some insight into the skepticism of gym goers during the pandemic.

Health precautions

Various health precautions — from temperature screenings to increased sanitation to upgraded air filtration systems — have helped some gym goers feel more at ease with returning. Johnson says ACAC’s goal is to exceed all Virginia gym reopening guidelines, implementing additional health measures to keep members safe.

Many pieces of gym equipment go unused, as signs cover them up to ensure patrons don’t use them. This helps enforce the minimum distancing guideline of 10 feet between gym participants.

At ACAC’s downtown location, a workout room places dots on the floor where participants should stand. This allows for group classes with the required distancing.

Johnson said ACAC has turned members away at the door after they show a high temperature during the temperature check. Johnson, and senior director of marketing Meghan Hammond, were both impressed by the commitment of gym members to sanitize equipment and wear masks when not working out.

Under Virginia guidelines, gym goers who are working out are not required to wear masks. There are some members who voluntarily opt to wear masks, though.

“Generally speaking, people have been super understanding,” Meghan Hammond, ACAC’s senior marketing director, said. “The community has been really working well together to make sure that we stay open and everyone stays healthy, which is really awesome to see.”

Creative plans

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Working hand in hand with necessary health precautions, local fitness centers tried to come up with creative ways to use their space this summer. The downtown ACAC location holds yoga and spin classes on its roof. The outdoor area features enough space for members to space out while also giving them outdoor air flow to help reduce exposure to the virus.

Asking for member feedback helps the fitness centers make their decisions about new plans. Members at ACAC requested mask-mandatory classes. The center plans on offering those to members as a way to help reduce anxiety around working out in an indoor facility.

The Piedmont Family YMCA is following a similar model.

Jessica Maslaney, the CEO of the Piedmont Family YMCA, says the location frequently asks for member feedback and aims to provide options that accommodate members. While some may be comfortable working out inside, others prefer the virtual opens offered by the YMCA. Others come for the pool.

“We’re trying to meet people where they’re at with their respective comfort levels in returning to the gym and outdoor classes and virtual classes and just different amenities within the Y,” Maslaney said.

The center also pivoted to “mission-critical services” this summer. That included helping with food distribution efforts in the community, offering child care services to parents returning to work and hosting blood drives in repurposed areas of its facility.

“One of the things that the Y likes to say is, ‘We’re way more than a gym and swim,’” Maslaney said. “We have a fitness component and an aquatics component, but we really try to diversify our programs and services and the pandemic has really forced us to look through that lens to diversify those programs and services to make sure their our opportunities for everybody depending on comfort levels and interest levels.”

While gyms offer creative ways for members to return safely, the pandemic has also revealed to potential and current members other ways to stay in shape.

That provides competition for fitness centers.

Whether it’s going for a run, walk or hike, there are relatively easy ways to increase cardiovascular fitness outside. Playing recreational sports also offer an alternative to visiting the gym. For some, doing at-home workouts using free YouTube videos or equipment purchased for a home gym is an easy means of working out.

“There are people who never had success at the gym and this experience is forcing them to say, ‘OK, I need to be doing stuff for my health, especially when it’s on everyone’s mind, and they’re trying everything else instead,” Nicholas Rizzo, the fitness research director at RunRepeat, said.

What’s next

As odd as it sounds, we’re closing in on three months until 2021. Typically, New Year’s means an influx of gym memberships as people set fitness-related New Year’s resolutions. That’s far from a given in 2021, as the pandemic figures to keep some prospective members away from gyms.

Some fitness centers nationally count on adding memberships each year, knowing some of the people will keep memberships despite never actually using the gym. Those prospective members may be less likely to join this winter given the concern of entering an indoor facility without a mask for an extended period of time.

While ACAC and the YMCA are both community-focused fitness centers with diverse offerings, others with less diverse offerings may struggle this fall and winter.

Creativity remains a goal for most fitness locations as they hope to accommodate people with varying comfort levels regarding the virus.

“This has forced us to kind of rethink our New Year’s resolution plans and how do we engage that group of people and so we’re really trying to meet people where they’re at,” Maslaney said. “If they’re not comfortable coming in the gym, there’s virtual opportunities.”

Both ACAC and the YMCA feel optimistic about the future. Johnson says she’s seen some positive research about gyms not leading to increased spread of the coronavirus, and they believe their health precautions make offerings as safe as possible.

Even with the optimism, the future of indoor fitness centers remains uncertain as the pandemic continues.

“I think that’s the scariest thing for gyms, gym owners and people in the industry overall is, we don’t know where this is going,” Rizzo said. “We don’t know where the fitness industry is going to be in six months because everything is just drastically changing at rapid speeds.”

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