Adaptability, positive mindset keep gym goers healthy through COVID-19 pandemic

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Image via Billie Grace Ward, Wikimedia Commons

The COVID-19 pandemic devastated gym owners and patrons alike. But the ability of gyms and their staff to improvise and adapt kept gym goers both physically and mentally healthy.

By Griffin Floyd, Staff Writer

At the ripe age of 60, in 2018 Tim Taylor decided to open his own gym in Kennedy Township, located about 20 minutes northwest of Pittsburgh, in an effort to change others’ lives for the better — just as exercising did for him.

The gym, named iLoveKickboxing, is part of a national chain of kickboxing gyms where participants take part in modified martial arts drills, fighting against punching bags instead of each other. Taylor explained that kickboxing and exercise did wonders for him and he wanted to return the favor.

“[Kickboxing] is something I truly believe in. It’s done wonders for my own health,” Taylor said. “I’m a 62-year-old guy who sat behind a desk for 40 years, and I’ve dropped almost 75 pounds since I opened, gotten off my medications and stuff like that.”

The gym hit the ground running, gaining 120 members in its first two years, close to the 155 needed to break even on his investment.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought Taylor and his gym’s progress to a screeching halt, leaving workers and business owners wondering how they could survive. The economy tanked, layoffs abounded and customers opted to exercise at home instead of going out.

The ever-present threat of COVID-19 made going to the gym a threat to one’s health. Although gyms were shuttered, many refused to sit idly in their house. Exercising is a means of stress relief, confidence boosting and staying physically fit — something people needed more than ever in the midst of an unprecedented global pandemic.

Ashley Boykin, a wellness specialist at Pitt, spoke in an email about the importance of exercising to keep people healthy mentally as well as physically.

“For some people, exercise is a coping mechanism,” Boykin said. “It gives them a chance to remove themselves for a time from the stressor and come back with a better perspective.”

Boykin elaborated, explaining that one can relieve stress through a variety of exercises, like taking walks with friends or engaging in recreational activities such as volleyball with a group of friends.

“Getting out in nature, feeling the warm sun on your skin, feeling the breeze on your face can be transforming,” Boykin said. “Physical activity releases endorphins (the feel-good chemicals), so you are in a better mood.”

Bralyn Wise, a sophomore psychology major, said that she started a habit of going to the gym shortly after the initial nationwide lockdown.

“I mainly started going [to the gym] because of COVID,” Wise said. “I feel like a lot of people gained weight during that time, and that’s why I go more often now. I also go for mental health reasons as well. I feel more confident after I exercise.”

Gym goers were not the only ones who had to adjust their traditional routines. Business owners were struck with a catch-22 — accommodate restrictions or shut down. These new rules often included restricting how many people were allowed to enter the facility, how frequently equipment was sanitized and the most contentious, wearing a mask during workouts. 

Student Affairs spokesperson Janine Fisher said the University’s student recreation facilities saw a massive drop-off in attendance as they altered operations in adherence to COVID-19 guidelines.

“Our spaces experienced about 24% of the usual [participation] in Fall 2020 compared to Fall 2019,” Fisher said. “Facilities remained open with modified hours and operations including requiring reservations to manage capacity, wearing of face coverings and following physical distancing guidelines.”

Pitt Campus Recreation ventured outside the traditional realm of exercise and athletics in order to keep students healthy, happy and entertained. The staff offered new activities that accommodated the need for physical distance such as cornhole, dodgeball and kickball.

While wearing masks caused controversy and provided a sticking point for a vocal faction of would-be exercisers in the United States, some gym owners found that the “new normal” means of operation worked better than the original rules had as gyms fundamentally changed the way they operate. 

“In altering our operations, we learned new technologies and looked at more flexible ways of offering programs and staff training,” Fisher said. “We offered group fitness classes outside, provided esports leagues, offered virtual wellness consultations and fitness programs and hosted our first-ever socially distanced tie-dye event.”

Even with the cards stacked against them, gym goers and gym owners pushed forward with athletic stoicism, fighting through the challenges of pandemic life and trying to better themselves in the process.

“It is what it is,” Taylor said. “You’ve gotta find a way to survive, and that’s what we’re doing.”

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