Bella Wallersteiner: A “Work Out to Help Out” scheme could boost the nation’s health and save our struggling gyms

3 Aug

Bella Wallersteiner is Senior Parliamentary Assistant to Greg Smith MP.

The two most memorable images of lockdown are a panic stricken Dominic Raab informing the nation that the Prime Minister had been admitted into intensive care juxtaposed with Joe Wicks exuding his irrepressible optimism while exalting the nation to join his daily workout. Joe Wicks has faded from our screens but the Prime Minister has had a Dasmacene conversion to lose weight and become as “fit as a Butcher’s Dog”.

There is a clear correlation between obesity-related conditions (those who have a BMI over 25) and patients in hospitals who require intensive care and intubation. Never has it been more important for the nation to take responsibility for its own health and thereby protect the NHS before the onset of winter when outdoor exercise regimes become more difficult to manage. The country will not be heading to their local parks on a cold dark autumnal evening in November.

It is all too facile for me as a relatively fit and healthy 25 year old to preach the benefits and merits of exercise to those who do not have easy access to open spaces and gyms. While it is amazing how much can be achieved by a simple work out in your average living room, better still is to leave your home, join your local gym and create a new daily work out routine.

Gyms are often maligned as intimidating spaces whose denizens spend their time toning their perfectly sculpted bodies in front of mirrors to reach the beach-ready, Love Island physique. The reality is very different as they have worked hard to become welcoming and inclusive spaces which encourage people of every shape and size in a national effort to increase fitness and reduce weight.

On March 21, UK’s 7,000 gyms and leisure centres were closed for the duration of the lockdown and only reopened on July 25 as part of the Government’s third stage of the national recovery from Covid-19 restrictions. Will the one in seven of the population who used to have gym memberships continue to inject £5 billion on keeping fit?

If my experience of attending gyms in the fortnight since gyms reopened is anything to go by the public has yet to be convinced. Monthly direct debits to gyms are not being renewed and while I have enjoyed the luxury of an empty gym this is not sustainable. We will see a swathe of gyms and fitness centres closing; a permanent loss to local communities with thousands of jobs disappearing and more empty spaces in our towns and cities.

The Prime Minister wants to level up Britain’s left behind areas, he should also be urging us to get on our spin bikes and thereby providing a leg up to this struggling industry.

At a time when the Government has launched its Eat Out to Help Out Scheme, with a £10 voucher for every meal out, there should be a similar financial inducement to encourage people to renew long-lapsed gym memberships and to support their local gym and fitness centres. A 25 per cent Government-backed discount on monthly gym memberships would incentivise people to join their local gyms and shed surplus weight gained during lockdown.

Comprehensive Government guidelines have ensured that gyms, pools and leisure centres have reopened safely. Measures include timed bookings to limit the number of people using a facility at any one time so that social distancing can be maintained, enhanced cleaning regimes which ensure that all equipment satisfies Covid-19 hygiene protocols and one-way systems reducing unnecessary contact between gym users.

The challenge now is for people to overcome their understandable reluctance to step back into enclosed spaces which have been caricatured as feted petri dishes for the spread of the Coronavirus. If we are to beat the pandemic the nation needs to be match-ready for the much anticipated second wave which could come sooner than expected.

Sarah Ingham: How so many gym-goers escaped Covid-19 is one of the great mysteries of this virus

22 Jul

Dr Sarah Ingham is a member of Kensington, Chelsea & Fulham Conservatives and launched the Gym-Goers’ Covid-19 survey.

On a spectrum of illness that runs from a mild cold to the Black Death, many of us have put Covid-19 at the fatal end of the range.

This is unsurprising. The initial images of the illness would not have been out of place in a disaster movie. People apparently lying dead in the eerily empty streets of Wuhan; the intubated patients in Italian intensive care units reminiscent of autopsy scenes, and the teams in hazmat suits.

That this particular Coronavirus may have been cooked up in a biological warfare lab in China has added to the apocalyptic nature of the threat. With the Steven Soderbergh film Contagion suddenly more like fact than fiction, many didn’t wait for the Government officially to order the lockdown on March 23.

By the second week of March they were already shielding themselves and their families. Children were pulled out of schools, essentials were stockpiled and events cancelled. The Government might have been following the science, but the great British public followed its gut instinct and stayed at home. It looked wise in the light of the prediction of 500,000 deaths, which it later transpired was instrumental in locking down the country.

Death at Teatime sounds like a cosy Agatha Christie mystery, but is in fact what the daily Downing Street press briefings became. This statistical ritual, with its rising death toll – first in hundreds, then in thousands, then in tens of thousands – reinforced initial impressions about the infectiousness and lethality of Covid-19.

When gyms and fitness studios reopen on Saturday, four long months will have passed since the lockdown was introduced. And it is surely in the context of the indoor sports sector that we can start questioning our current assumptions about Covid-19 and whether State-induced mortal fear promulgated by Government ministers is justified.

Among the mysteries surrounding Covid-19 – including when it actually arrived in Britain – is how any of the country’s gyms-goers and fitness studio fiends escaped it before the Government imposed the Lockdown.

Anyone who was a regular in one of Britain’s gyms, studios or indoor sports centres before their closure in March can testify that most were hardly operating-theatre sterile, particularly in city centres where space is at a premium.

Machines or mats crammed together, shared equipment, crowded changing rooms… Many working out got up close and personal with the heavy breathing and sweat of their fellow fitness fans whether they wanted to or not, in environments which were often strangers to anti-viral wipes.

Hot yoga fans relished classes in fetid, rammed studios heated to close to 100 degrees. Covid-19 was supposed to be dangerously infectious, justifying the emergency Coronavirus Act of March 25, which enabled the police, immigration and public health officials to detain “potentially infectious persons”.

Civil libertarians across the political spectrum have expressed concerns about the Act: the Institute for Economic Affairs states it imposes the “greatest restrictions on liberty in modern British history” while Liberty says it “strips away our civil liberties”. The enforced closure of gyms and studios follows a record-breaking year.

The 2019 State of the UK Fitness Industry Report by Leisure DB highlights that total UK membership broke the 10 million mark, with one in seven of us now members of a gym, while the number of fitness centres reached an all-time high. The industry is worth more than £5 billion a year.

Regulars to gyms, as well as yoga and pilates studios, are now getting updates about the measures that will be in place ahead of Saturday’s reopening. These might include screens around machines such as cross-trainers, fewer people in classes and more cleaning, making them very different places compared with the pre-lockdown era.

Whether regulars will return to their pre-Covid fitness regimes is the question that must be haunting the industry. With predictions about working from home, is working out at home also going to become the new normal?

And just as privately-owned centres might be soon feeling the financial burn, public fitness facilities, many funded by local authorities, are facing an uncertain future: reports last week from ukactive suggested that Britain is “sleep walking” towards losing many of them.

Like restaurants and cinemas, gyms can create a safe, socially-distanced environment, but it is not automatic that punters will have the confidence to return to them. Since March, the Government’s Project Coronavirus Fear has been relentless, putting Covid-19 at the Black Death end of the illness scale, bolstered by a media which has delighted in drinking the Corona apocalypse Kool-Aid.

But if Covid-19 were lethal and infectious enough to justify a four-month lockdown that was only supposed to last three weeks, then surely our indoor gyms and fitness studios would have been the places to find high rates of transmission?

Although the numbers dropped throughout the month, one boss of a leading high-end gym chain estimates there were at least 20 million gym visits in March, as peak virus was being reached.

Wouldn’t a London-based yoga teacher who was teaching 350 students a week have caught it, along with her colleagues and students?

She didn’t; they didn’t: why not?

Perhaps, as Roosevelt once suggested, most of us have nothing to fear but fear itself.