During quarantine, I’ve worked on my pull up and can now do a two-second unsupported handstand. That may seem pathetic, but I’m 45 and I didn’t think I could do any unsupported anything, so I’m beyond excited about it.
I’ve worked out 6 days a week through online classes from my gym and while I’ve put on a few quarantine pounds, I’ve gained some strength tossing my Olympic barbell set around. So fitness-wise, I’m actually in pretty great shape, all things considered.
From those first days of COVID-19 spreading, I’ve made a conscious effort to continue my fitness level. It’s not just for all of those great mental health pieces I get from it, it’s mainly because I have severe asthma and the only consistent information on COVID-19 is the best way to avoid the worst is to be in good shape to begin with.
So why is it that of all the industries that are being encouraged to be creative and still operate, New York is not working as hard as possible to encourage fitness?
Let me be clear, I have fully supported and valued the strict stance that New York has taken about reopening the economy. The data has shown how necessary it was and continues to be to proceed in a measured manner. I think the slow, careful opening, especially of indoor establishments, is the right choice.
However, if there is one thing that I have learned in my years in municipal government and working with the public, it is that consistency is key, but one size fits all doesn’t work.
The fitness industry is filled with people so dedicated to health that it is literally their job. While a museum, or store, or restaurant might not fully understand the health implications of COVID19, people in the fitness industry actually study bodies and how they work. They care about your body being healthy and strong. They understand injury and illness and work hard to prevent both.
The fitness industry also varies widely. You can have a big box gym with 10,000 square feet filled with machines, to a small scale boxing gym with a ring, a few heavy bags and light bags, to a yoga studio that is an open space. Everyone recognizes that, just like all other industries, gyms have to operate very differently than pre-COVID19 times. The whole moving from one piece of equipment to another indoors doesn’t work, neither does a sealed room hot yoga class.
But there are ways that you could have a well ventilated, defined space workout safely. There are strict guidelines that you could put into place that gyms could make the choice to rise to and open safely.
Why does it matter to leave the fitness industry behind in opening? Because through quarantine, we’ve all gotten heavier and in worse shape. Many call it the “quarantine 15” after the famed “freshman 15” of college days. You may say, so what? I kind of like my rounded-out figure! Agreed, me too. But this isn’t about how you look in a bathing suit, it’s about your cardiovascular fitness.
While we don’t know much about COVID19, studies are beginning to show it is a vascular virus, meaning it can infect blood vessels. Fitness helps improve blood flow and while it is still too early to have actual studies on the impact of fitness on COVID-19, there has been a consistent acknowledgement of how important vascular health is in combating the worst symptoms of the virus.
In fact, one researcher, Zhen Yan, a professor of cardiovascular medicine at the University of Virginia Medical School, said that exercise should be recommended as a precautionary measure – like social distancing. In addition to the commonly accepted benefits of exercise in pulmonary and cardiovascular health, along with strengthening your immune system, it also boosts the production of an antioxidant known as “extracellular superoxide dismutase” which can combat acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) which is fatal in 45 percent of COVID-19 cases.
Yes, you absolutely need to be more careful with people exercising indoors because breathing heavily can more easily spread the virus.
Instead of refusing to re-open gyms, perhaps instead we should be talking about how to encourage fitness throughout our society – especially for those communities that have been hardest hit by the virus. Shouldn’t that be the real conversation?
Because right now fitness is a luxury for people with the time and money to focus on it. The pandemic has made it worse, with fitness moving to the virtual plane. You have to have internet connection, a device to connect, space to do the workout, often some equipment, and the time to do it. Those are all luxury items that many homes just don’t have.
If we can figure out how to open a mall safely, we can certainly figure out how to open a gym. Our society’s economic heath is important, but every single economist I read and listen to says with confidence that the first thing that the public health crisis needs to be addressed first before economic recovery can occur.
When you enable fitness, you are not only providing an economic engine but you are helping to fight the health crisis.
So figure out a set of guidelines. Make it a high but achievable bar. Every industry has had to get creative to survive, the fitness industry is no different.
Maybe for a beginning, low-impact yoga class you are at Level 1, and you have to have this level of ventilation and this much space with these protocols. Maybe a Hiit class is a Level 5, and you’re going to need this level of ventilation, this much space and these protocols. Maybe those wacky hanging upside down things are a Level 2, who knows? But give the fitness industry a bar to work towards.
Even more importantly, give people the chance to fight this virus on two fronts, by wearing a mask and giving space, and also by building their cardiovascular fitness to give them a better chance of surviving COVID-19, should they contract it.
Then we can have the real conversation we should have been having for a long time now: How do we ensure that the people hardest hit by this virus are best able to access fitness? What resources should be provided to make the daily health of all of our communities a priority?