Safely re-opening gyms: Lockdown might be doing more harm than good

Gym (Steve Haag Sports Hollywoodbets)
Gym (Steve Haag Sports Hollywoodbets)
  • The debate of keeping gyms closed in South Africa is becoming a matter of possibly fighting the 'lesser evil' of preventing Covid-19 and ignoring the benefits of exercise in taming infection.
  • A comprehensive recent study concluded that lower-income countries benefit the most from physical exercise in terms of preventing premature deaths.
  • The gym industry has already compiled protocol documents dealing with creating safe facilities and emphasise that it's going to be people's attitudes that make a difference.


The continued closure of gyms and health clubs under government's current lockdown regulations is rapidly becoming a battle between fighting bigger or lesser evils.

That's according to Mannee de Wet, managing director of Planet Fitness, who believes there's "no reason why the industry can't find a balance" between safety and resuming services.

Currently, gyms are only slated to re-open at level one lockdown, a date thought to be closer to the start of September, though lobbying and engagement is on the increase.

"The importance of getting people into a routine of exercise is only going to become more vital during the Covid-19 pandemic," De Wet told a Wits Sport webinar.

"According to some of the research we've consulted, approximately 5.3 million people die per year because of diseases related to a lack of physical activity. If you look at that in relation to deaths worldwide, which stand (at 471 000), it's a difficult situation. It's becoming a case preventing a lesser evil and what we're trying to do."

In its latest edition, leading medical journal The Lancet Global Health published a comprehensive descriptive study of 168 countries' physical activity data over a 15-year period and how many premature deaths were avoided.

The results were significant.

Authors concluded that 3.9 million lives are saved annually through regular physical exercise.

Notably, that's merely a conservative estimate.

Adding ammunition to local gyms' case for re-opening is the finding that Africa has the highest "prevented fraction" median of 16.6%, a figure that increases to 17.9% in low-income countries.

In other words, poorer countries benefit the most from having initiatives in place that promote regular physical exercise, which includes gyms.

"There's research that indicates one week of no exercise leads to a 3% drop in a person's overall fitness levels. Add that over a three-month lockdown period and it becomes quite significant," said Mark Field, managing director of Virgin Active.

"We as an industry do have a role to play because there's a limit to outdoor exercising, particularly for a country in winter where there's the added risk of simply picking up a cold. Some people simply don't have the facilities for that. The industry needs to step up and get South Africa healthy again."

Other health considerations are also vital to the debate.

While some policy-makers note that increased respiration associated with exercise means that increased social distancing needs to be out in place, numerous reputable studies have conclusively concluded that exercise boots immunity by producing molecules that fight infection.

Exercise also reduces respiratory problems by releasing anti-oxidant enzymes provide assistance.

De Wet noted the positive impact that physical activity has in promoting mental health, particularly in a constrained, tense environment such as a pandemic.

It's safe to assume then that the clinical benefits of re-opening gyms aren't in doubt and that it's a case of developing protocols that mitigate the risk of Covid-19 transmission as much as possible.

"Our protocol document is a big piece of work," said Field.

"The easiest one is screening, which can be done before a person even enters the facilities. You can do it upon arrival or via an app. Hygiene is massively important across the board, from personnel to members. We address PPE, the materials we clean our equipment with, how often it needs to be cleaned and, importantly, waste disposal. 

"Virgin Active has also determined that while government advises 1.5m social distancing, we believe that best practice is to apply distances of 10 square metres. That gives us real spacing. That would allow us to accommodate about 50-70% of our normal membership attendance."

Planet Fitness' framework mirrors that of its competitor though De Wet argued that protocols can't be standardised.

"If you're allowing 50 people into a club, the differences between one that's 4 000 square metres and one that's 1 000 will be significant. It's difficult to frame them under the same rules," he said.

"Training and education will be the key. It's people - members and staff - that are going to determine whether we create a safe environment or not."

Tony Payne of Pentasystems, who exclusively distribute Technogym in Africa, believes gyms should avoid creating too clinical an environment.

"Critical feedback on this issue has been revealing. Members fall into different categories. Some are bullish to return as soon as possible, but a lot are uncertain," he said.

"Communication promotes comfort. You have to create facilities that aren't so sterile that it intimidates people. It's very much like the challenges experienced by schools at the moment. It's important to focus on co-responsibility and explore things like a bookings system so that people aren't discouraged when they see a long line trying to get into a gym."

- Compiled by Heinz Schenk  

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