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VOL. 45 | NO. 39 | Friday, September 24, 2021

Is the gym worth the risk?

Wary clients slow to return, even as facilities go to great lengths to ensure safety

By Tom Wood

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The name of his strength and conditioning gym is Competitive Edge, so it’s no wonder that owner Mark Johnson is a bit, well, competitive when it comes to the cleanliness of his facility during this COVID pandemic that seemingly won’t go away.

Staying healthy can be a challenge for those who want to stay physically fit during these trying times. Sanitation, health and safety are among the biggest questions facing people today as they decide whether to return to crowded gyms or fitness centers or try to get in their workouts at home with the help of expensive equipment.

The Ledger recently talked with management and members at three facilities in the Donelson-Hermitage area – including some who have yet to return to the gym – about safety protocols and the choices they’ve made since the resurgence of the virus that forced businesses to shut down in March 2020 before eventually reopening a few months later.

Sanitizing procedures – from wiping down equipment to disinfectant spraying to social distancing – are now the norm rather than the exception in the $33.25 billion U.S. fitness industry. But Johnson goes above and beyond what many expect nowadays.

“You know, I’ve always taken pride in having a spotless gym. We spend 2 and a-half to three hours every night cleaning the equipment down. And over the course of the day, we do extra cleaning,” Johnson says of his gym located at 3317 Lebanon Pike.

“Every day, we put out a couple of hundred towels. We have 10 spray bottles, and the members generally will use them when they’re working out. When they’re done on a piece of equipment, they’ll spray it down and wipe it off for the next person. People have really embraced that, and it’s worked well.”

A similar message about cleanliness is touted by operators at the YMCA’s Donelson branch (3001 Lebanon Pike) and Crossfit Donelson (219 Shady Grove Road)

BJ Keener, executive director at the Donelson-Hermitage Family YMCA, says the health and safety of members has been paramount since the branch reopened in May.

“We still have good protocols regarding cleaning and the products we use, making sure we provide an environment that is safe and can help everyone further their health,” she says.

Participation at the YMCA has steadily increased over the past year, but members Carolyn and Nick Sullivan have yet to return.

“It just seems too risky to us right now, all that’s going on,” says Nick, a retired sports writer at The Tennessean who lives in Hermitage. “We’ve been staying in shape, pretty much, things we do at home like walking and bicycle rides. And Carolyn does situps, pushups and Pilates movements here in the den.

“We’ve stayed pretty active during the summer but we miss the Y, especially in the wintertime, I do, because it’s hard to do things outside.”

Kelly Jo Kuhns is one member of CrossFit Donelson who tried working out at home before joining the gym six months ago. She says she’s lost 20 pounds on the program and loves it so much that she would go to extremes to continue her training there.

“My fitness routine has changed a bit due to COVID. I was with Planet Fitness prior to the pandemic. Then I worked out at home – inconsistently,” she says. “I’ve been a member of CrossFit Donelson for the last six months, and I love it so much that I’ll wear a hazmat suit if I have to before I’ll ever stop going.”

Spencer Smith, co-owner and main coach at CrossFit Donelson, says he has a smaller facility – and smaller classes – but that safety is a big priority.

“Our protocols have pretty much always been the same because we always have towels and spray bottles out,” Smith points out. We’re a smaller gym because we’re relatively new but we have ample space. So that really wasn’t much of a change for us.

“Once we reopened, it was just more about making people feel comfortable, being able to come back into a public space and work out again,” he adds. “The longer we’ve gone through this, the more people start to feel comfortable.”

Mark Johnson, owner of Competitive Edge, says his clients have embraced sanitizing and safety procedures.

-- Photo By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

Here’s a deeper look at issues and concerns facing the gym operators and their members:

‘My health is really important’

Donelson resident Jason Lindsey says he likes working out at the gym. Really, he does. But not enough to put his health at risk.

That’s why he and his husband stopped going last year as the pandemic began and started training at home. Then, as things improved, they joined the Fitness:1440 gym off Harding Place near I-24.

Now, with COVID variants surging, it’s back to home workouts.

“I guess I’m one of those people who’s kind of picky about it, but my health is really important. I work hard at it. I’m not interested in even being sick for 10 days if I can avoid it,” says Lindsey, who is in the insurance business and works from home.

“We had a gym membership when all the COVID stuff started that we really liked. Then when COVID turned serious, we stopped going and tried to get some equipment for our home.”

And that wasn’t as easy as going to a sporting goods store or ordering online due to supply and demand.

“We found that was challenging because I guess everybody in the world probably tried to do the same thing at the same time,” he says. “Equipment was scarce. It was really more expensive all of a sudden (and) hard to come by.”

Lindsey says it took “a couple months to actually cobble together enough equipment that we could really do our usual workout.” That home strategy worked for most of 2020, but he says they looked forward to the day they could return to a real gym. Eventually, that day arrived.

“We thought, ‘OK, we can go back to the gym again, things are calming down.’ So we found a new gym that we like a little better; they were a little more stringent on their protocols, you know. Their staff wore masks, and it seemed like it was cleaner and stuff.

“So we started going back there and then, of course, recently we’ve taken another turn where we’re not comfortable anymore because it seems like people are getting sick again.

“And so we have moved back home again. It’s kind of sad because we really liked the gym we found and it’s hard enough to get into a routine. But we just don’t feel safe so we’re back at home again.”

To mask or not to mask

There are no mask mandates for those who work out, but the YMCA requires staff to wear masks. That’s part of the commitment to reassuring the public, Keener says, and calls masks a matter of personal responsibility.

“Since reopening, I think we have seen, obviously, myriad responses and levels of concern as things have changed or progressed with the pandemic and COVID,” she says.

“We’ve seen some fluctuations in the (Donelson) branch, too. I think that we have made our focus on doing everything we can and promoting safety and having each person – staff and members – take responsibility for their health and safety.

“There are individuals who wear a mask when they’re working out or in class or in the facility. And for us, our staff are wearing masks so we have gone back to staff wearing masks. But our members are not required to – that is up to them, their personal decision,” she adds.

“It’s really kind of great to see everyone taking that personal responsibility because we have a whole host of responses, and I think people feel comfortable to do what they need to do to keep themselves safe. They’ll get a workout in and find that opportunity to work on their health.”

Johnson says masks were never required for the 500 members at Competitive Edge. Instead, it relied on personal responsibility and the daily cleaning procedures to keep everyone safe.

“We never actually required them to be (masked). We kind of left it up to what people wanted to do,” he says. “Of course, it’s very difficult to wear a mask while you work out.

Trainer Hunter Harrington works with client Danielle Levine at Competitive Edge.

-- Photos By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

“But I can tell you that since COVID hit last year, we haven’t had any issues whatsoever in the gym. I mean, we probably have had maybe half a dozen people that we know of that have gotten the virus. They would all come tell me, ‘Hey, I just tested positive and last time I was in there was five or six days ago,’ you know.

“We’re not doing it just because we haven’t had any issues. Now if we start having issues and if we started having people get sick and it started spreading then, yes, we would definitely make the necessary changes to keep everyone safe.”

Kuhns says masks aren’t required at CrossFit, and for that she is grateful.

“You’re certainly welcome to if you want to. I would find that it would be much harder,” she says. “I can barely wear a mask and go about my errands when I have to. I’m not a fan. It makes it hard to breathe for me so I can’t imagine doing that while working out.”

Going virtual, then and now

Remember all those last-century, classic fitness tapes and videos from Jane Fonda, Cher, Cindy Crawford, Richard Simmons, Suzanne Sommers and so many more? They’ve never actually gone away, but they have gone high-tech.

When the pandemic hit in 2020 and shutdown most businesses, CrossFit Donelson immediately switched from in-person classes to Zoom classes and barely broke stride.

“We shut down for … about two months. Not a super long time,” Smith recalls. “And we continued to do virtual-like classes with our athletes. We would set an appointment and they would get on the call with us. Then we reopened back in May 2020.”

It sounds like an innovative approach to solving a problem, adapting the way so many other businesses did to keep afloat during hard times (think curbside grocery pickups and switching from whisky-making to producing hand sanitizer as examples).

Smith says it was a practical solution.

“About six months before we had to shut down for COVID, we had used Zoom with some business mentors,” he recalls. “When the pandemic happened and we had to shut down, we (said) ‘Well, we already have Zoom,’ and it was already becoming popular and we had already had some experience when because of that.”

Here’s how the Zoom training worked:

“I would host it and anybody who wanted to join the class starting, let’s say at 6 in the morning or whatever.

“We’d all get on Zoom at that time. They would be set up in their garage or their front yard or backyard or whatever, and ready to work out. And we’d go through what the workout was going to be, I’d lead them through a short warmup and then lead them through a short workout.

“They would do that while on camera so that I could watch them and give them assistance that helps give them cues and things like that to help coach them during their workout.”

CrossFit Donelson is back to in-person classes only, but the Donelson-Hermitage YMCA earlier this month launched its YMCA360 platform to reach those who have reservations about returning in-person.

It’s simple and brilliant.

To use, all participants have to do is download the app to their phone or computer and then stream to the TV or monitor to join in. More than 800 on-demand videos ranging from group exercise classes to healthy eating, family workouts and youth sports training are available – all without ever leaving home.

“We are meeting people where they are,” Keener explains. “Sometimes the problem with fitness equipment at home is you get it, but it’s the drive of being in a class or working out with someone else that really encourages you on, so we have a program called Y360 that when you’re a member, you have access to and it has fitness instructors and personal trainers.

Donelson-Hermitage Family YMCA staffers are required to wear masks. Clients can if they choose.

-- Photograph Provided

“What we’ve done is we’ve taken that extra step and there’s no additional charge to it. It comes with membership so when you’re a member – whether you just want to stay home because perhaps it’s easier that day and you’ve got equipment or maybe you don’t have equipment – there’s workouts on this program that are bodyweight or other alternatives that you can do without equipment.”

The Sullivans see the YMCA360 program as an opportunity to reconnect while staying safe.

“This is the first I’ve heard of this new program but it certainly sounds interesting,” Nick says. “We’ll check it out and see what they’ve got. Especially Carolyn. If they’ve got Pilates lessons and movements and things like that, she would like that. (We) just look forward to when we can go back again, safely, in our opinion.’’

He said gym, she said home

The YMCA ‘360’ program sounds like the right solution for Lisa and Frank Ballard. Frank, who played football at Tennessee State University in the early 1980s, is a self-described gym rat, while Lisa prefers to work out in her home gym.

Frank, a financial adviser who sits on the YMCA board of directors, says his wife’s choice isn’t pandemic-related but rather a necessity of raising children at home. Lisa says that she couldn’t find day care or a gym that offered day care.

“We’re seeing some people come back to the Y (but) there’s always going to be that group that just (says), ‘yeah, I’ve decided I’m going to do this.’ My wife is one,” Ballard says. “We’ve got a room in the house where she does yoga and stretching and her (exercise) tapes. She’s got a television in there that she can hook to the iPad and streaming stuff.

“It wouldn’t bother her if we didn’t ever go back to the gym. Me, I’m a gym guy. Being an athlete and everything, you grow up in the gym. And I just like the gym. I like meeting people, talking to people. I just like the gym.

“My wife is one of them, you know, who once she finds something that works, she’ll just do it.”

Lisa says she’ll join Frank at the YMCA occasionally but likes the convenience of home and working out to exercise videos.

“When you’re at home, as soon as you get done, you can go right to your own bathroom and take a shower. You are already at home. You can go ahead and choose whatever you normally do at home,” she says.

“It’s much more convenient than having to drive to the gym, bring all of your stuff with you, use their (equipment) … but then sometimes you have to wait because somebody else is on that machine or somebody else is using a weight that you want to use.

“That sort of thing is what kind of deterred me from going back to the gym because all my children are grown now. … But every now and then I will go to the gym with Frank if I want to work out on the elliptical, for instance. I don’t have an elliptical here at home so I will go sometimes – every blue moon – to the gym with him and work out on the elliptical or treadmill because I don’t have either one of those here at the house.”

Gym visit a ‘stress reliever’

That’s how Competitive Edge owner Johnson refers to sessions at his gym.

It’s a modern, yet old-fashioned, gym that focuses on endurance and strength training. No pools, no saunas. Plenty of weight machines, workout stations and free weights.

Johnson says the COVID shutdown was a real blow to his regular “hardcore” members.

“At first, when we started hearing about COVID, it kind of scared a lot of people, you know? People didn’t know what to think and it was just a very strange time. It was something new to all of us,” Johnson recalls.

“When it first happened, you had your hardcore people who weren’t afraid of it, you had some other people who maybe had preexisting conditions that took extra precautions.

“When we opened back up, the regulars – I call them the hardcore ones – they showed back up immediately and were ready to go. And then you had a few, it took them a month or two or three to come back in. Over time, it’s kind of fizzled out.”

Johnson says he could tell which members were able to stick to their training regimen and those who needed help to get back into shape.

“It was probably about half-and-half. You had your daily grinders who still found a way to work out. And then you had some people who had gained a bunch of weight and you had some people who had lost a bunch of weight,” he says

“Working out is a mental thing for a lot of people. It’s a stress reliever. And when you get that taken away, you can tell, it can mess with some peoples’ mental health when it gets taken away. When we opened back up, people were ecstatic to get back in there, just happy to be able to come back.”

Johnson says his business which includes a nutrition shop next door to the gym has been growing steadily since last year’s reopening.

“We’ve had our best year – our best sales year – ever in the last year. And I attribute that to people wanting to get healthier because this COVID brought awareness to everyone,” Johnson says.

“We heard about people who got the sickness, had preexisting conditions, and so it encouraged a lot of people to get into fitness and trying to become healthier to avoid possibly getting this. It really ended up being a very blessed year for us overall.”

And in the year of the pandemic, that says a lot.

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