American gyms turn to outdoor classes to lure cautious but stir-crazy members

Zachary Lewis

THE WASHINGTON POST – Some United States (US) gyms at this stage of the coronavirus pandemic are like bar owners anticipating a brawl. They’re ordering their instructors to take it outside.

In efforts to meet state regulations, boost business and lure back members wary of exercising indoors with others, these facilities are moving group fitness classes into the fresh air, where, experts say, transmission of the virus is less likely than in enclosed spaces. Still, they’re being cautious and following many of the same guidelines they would indoors.

“We can’t put a bubble around ourselves all the time,” said Humberto Choi, a triathlete and pulmonologist at the Cleveland Clinic. “We just need to follow the precautions by the book … taking those activities outdoors whenever the weather allows is one safe way to do that.”
Though it’s now permitted again in several states, indoor group exercise is still highly risky, said an Associate Professor in the School of Public Health at Rutgers University Henry Raymond.

Distancing, smaller class sizes and cleaning certainly help, Raymond said. Nothing, however, fundamentally alters the fact that an infected person in an enclosed setting could unwittingly spread the coronavirus with little more than a cough.

Outdoors, Raymond said, it’s easier to maintain distances of six feet or more, and members are unlikely to breathe the same air, as long as they’re not in shoulder-to-shoulder cycling or running groups, which he advises against.

Solo exercise is still preferable, Raymond said, but if participants in outdoor group classes avoid clustering, and instructors wear masks, mark off personal exercise zones and wipe down equipment, the risk of transmission drops to a level he said he can tolerate. “If it’s really important to your mental and physical health … maybe this is the way to go,” he said.

When West Virginia reopened gyms and fitness centres last month, Dewana Waters Grillot, co-owner of Balanced Life Studio in Beckley, figured her 200-plus clients would be beating down her door, eager to return to in-person yoga classes.

Not so. Even at the 40 per cent capacity mandated by West Virginia, slots were going unfilled.

Participation in virtual classes, meanwhile, remained steady. A May survey by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that only half of those who regularly exercised in a gym before the pandemic would feel comfortable doing so again.

“I saw it in the numbers,” Waters Grillot said. “I couldn’t believe people weren’t flocking back into the studio.”

Turns out, they were just waiting for a different kind of class. As soon as Waters Grillot began conducting classes on an outdoor deck newly built for that purpose, members returned in droves, she said. The classes were so popular, Balanced Life launched a boot camp, combining calisthenics on the deck with running on nearby wooded trails.

“I think people feel safer this way,” Waters Grillot said. “I think they don’t feel so cooped up. The distancing in that class is easy.”

One of those who felt safer was Lori Smith, of Beckley. She wasn’t ready for indoor classes but felt actively drawn to the deck and its picturesque surroundings.

“It’s the place to be,” she said. “Even with the gym open, you really don’t want to go back in, anyway.”

Neither the American College of Sports Medicine nor the Association of Fitness Studios has numbers on how many gyms are turning to outdoor classes. But examples are popping up all over the country. In the Washington DC region, where gyms have been allowed to resume operations later than in some other parts of the country, instructors are turning to parks, tennis courts and sports fields.

“We had to add time slots the day we opened,” said Alex Perrin, co-owner of Cut Seven in Logan Circle, which now holds up to eight socially distant classes a day at a local athletic field and plans to rent an open-air studio later this summer. “We almost doubled within a week.”

Before the pandemic, Newport Fitness in Newport, Ky., was a bustling gym with 375 members interested in a wide array of classes. Owner Emily Wagner said it was not uncommon there to see 60 people at a time during peak hours.

The view is different today. Gyms in Kentucky are allowed to operate only at one-third capacity. At Newport Fitness, that translates to just 22 people in the facility, Wagner said, less than enough to meet demand.

Her solution? The gym’s large parking lot. There, in June, Wagner launched four outdoor boot camps on weekdays, each capable of hosting 20 people in separate, marked-off spaces. The workouts consist primarily of calisthenics and use no equipment other than bands. “We’re still improvising a little,” Wagner said.

Some members attend because they have little choice, Wagner said. Their preferred indoor classes are full. Others attend because that’s the only place they feel comfortable. At least one member, she said, held off returning until outdoor classes appeared, and some 20 have joined the gym since the boot camps’ launch.

“We’ve had people specifically reach out, saying they were looking for outdoor workouts,” Wagner said.

At USD5 a class, the outdoor sessions aren’t yet a significant source of revenue, Wagner said. They are, however, pulling their weight, prompting her to consider giving trainers more hours.

“It’s definitely helped,” Wagner said. “I feel fortunate. We’re in a much better position than a lot of places.”

The shift outdoors has been even more beneficial to I Perform Fitness, in Wickliffe, Ohio. Since he began holding classes outdoors, owner Jordan Taylor has seen membership at his small personal training and group exercise studio nearly double.

Zoom classes and a smartphone app kept Taylor’s fledgling business (he opened in January) afloat during the shutdown. But the return to live sessions wasn’t as rewarding as he’d hoped. State regulations limit his indoor class sizes to 10.

By contrast, in his parking lot, Taylor said he’s able to host as many as 22 at a time for high-intensity interval classes and youth exercise programs. He wears a mask and pre-loads individual spaces with whatever equipment participants will need. He also cleans up. Business has increased as a result. “It’s kind of refreshing,” Taylor said. “It’s been a real blessing, for sure.”

Unless the course of the pandemic changes dramatically this summer, however, gyms in the Northeast and Midwest could find themselves in mid-to-late fall right where they were at the outset of the crisis.

This time, at least, they won’t be caught off-guard or have to scramble to develop online programs from scratch, the owners said. And when the weather turns nice again, they’ll have new tools in their arsenal, most of them useful with or without the threat of the coronavirus.

“We’ve found that happy medium,” Taylor said. “As long as people are safe and we’re meeting the health concerns people have, we’ll just continue on this path.”