Last Saturday, the day I’d waited four months for finally arrived: gyms reopened. God that’s a sad sentence to write… but it’s true. Having spent the entirety of lockdown feeling increasingly emotionally unstable and hating home workouts, I was more than ready to get back to the weights section that typically provides me a blissful escape from my brains relentless chatter. And it didn’t disappoint. In fact, it was the most serotonin I think I’ve ever had in my body at one time.
I’d been nervous about returning to the gym, not just for the obvious risks of Covid-19 but because what was once a haven away from my mental illness now had ominous cloud of wariness around it. Would it still feel like my mentally safe space knowing it had been physically unsafe for me to visit for so long? I pondered this while getting ready, ironically less excited about returning having spent months longing for this moment.
That was until I started the walk there, and the familiar feeling of mentally preparing to exercise gave me a warm rush – even this small part of returning to a more normal routine brought me joy.
I wasn’t sure what to expect on arrival. I go to an independent gym based in London that advised members to book their visit five days in advance. Seemingly, there was a capacity limit – would there be a queue outside the door?
I needn’t worry, it turned out, as there were six other people in the entire gym. A one-way system had been put in place, one point of entry and a different point of exit. Entering, hand sanitiser was available as I scanned myself through the barrier – no need for a track and trace form here then.
Only five people were allowed in the changing room at a time but there was no one in there when I arrived. Even so, I started to feel nervous about the social norms of this new situation. There were signs to social distance, but nothing else. ‘Should I wear my mask since we’re indoors?’, I wondered. If you’re a member of a PureGym, you’ve likely been told to – but I hadn’t heard a peep from mine about mask-etiquette.
I threw it on and entered the workout floor, only to find no one else wearing one. My gym is entirely indoors, and there were no windows open, but I’d been assured by a member newsletter that there were new air conditioning facilities in place that promote better ventilation and actively kill airborne viruses (Covid-19 is largely transmitted through droplets when people cough or sneeze, but the World Health Organisation is still investigating whether airborne transmission is a possibility in crowded, closed or poorly ventilated settings.)
The first noticeable difference was the enforcement of social distancing measures. My gym had been divided up into sections by yellow tape, each piece of equipment – machines, benches, racks – had one meter of space around it. Even the floor space was separated into sections where you could place your mat in the centre to have a one meter radius around you. Honestly, terrible circumstances aside, that’s a dream come true for women in gyms, right? There is now literally tape forcing gym bro’s and their unsolicited advice to stay the hell away.
‘Do not workout here’ signs were placed along walkways that took you through the gym – the only real loss being the stretch of matt used for sled pushes. There are some logistical errors of course, because not all gyms are going to be laid out perfectly. Once I’d commandeered a bench, for example, I realised I was right in front of the dumbbells section – with people having to walk within one meter of me to collect and dispose of their weights.
But in my case, everyone went to great lengths to avoid me – one man even put his 22kg dumbbells back by leaning over the other side of the rack, which from watching him struggle awkwardly can’t have been a comfortable experience.
There were added cleaning stations with disinfectant and paper towels, with signs that every piece of equipment should be cleaned before and after use. Gym workers were also doing that periodically, entering the gym floor routinely to go around cleaning themselves. In my gym, they have also purchased a chemical fogging machine used on all equipment to kill viruses. Honestly, if all members actually follows the rules, it felt safer there than my local supermarket. And from the hours I spent there this weekend, they seemed to.
It’s an ardours experience, I will say that, because it’s not just the quick wipe down of a matt or treadmill you might be used to. Knowing that we should really be cleaning everything we touch, those items add up when you’re confronted by so many different tools. I would clean a matt, only to realise I needed to also clean the kettlebell I used for one set of Russian twists, the dumbbell I picked up to test my strength, the 10kg plate I used only to take it straight back off the barbell.
I probably spent about 20 minutes of my 90-minute workout cleaning, before and after use just as they said. But honestly… it was all worth it. Not just because by doing so you’re potentially saving lives, but because the rush of being back in the gym was more than I ever expected.
It wasn’t just excitement at being back to my safe space, this was a real hormonal shift in my body. Getting back into hip thrusts, loading up the bar with far more weight than I really should’ve, I don’t think my serotonin has ever peaked that high before. I quite literally felt like I was high. I’d gone into the workout wary of what my body could handle, telling myself ‘Ease yourself in, you don’t want to injure yourself’. Well, that went straight out the window.
The first set was weird, barbell hip thrusts are a lot more painful than I remember – especially since I’ve been using my housemates body as a weight for months and her bum is a lot softer than a barbell, as you’d imagine. But once I’d lifted that first 100kg, a weight I would’ve considered a warm-up six months ago, I was hooked all over again. I started quite literally buzzing, walking round the gym like I’d just done six shots, unable to control myself bopping along to music with a confidence I’ve only previously seen in gym bros.
I ended up adding another 20kg to the barbell, back to my typical weight in the first session. In hindsight, that was stupid – and my back is reminding me of that today – but at the time I couldn’t stop myself. It was the best I’ve felt in months.
Leaving the gym knowing I’d not been in one meter of anyone, I’d cleaned everything and washed my hands thoroughly – I didn’t feel the ‘hangxiety’ I expected to. It was a cleaner environment than the supermarkets I frequent weekly, emptier than the pubs I walk past each weekend and members – even the male ones – were actually following the rules. If it continues on in that vein, I’ll be back in the gym five days a week again. And with the rush I experienced, I bloody hope it does.
Gyms and lockdown: everything you need to know…
When will gyms reopen?
Boris Johnson announced that gyms will reopen as part of the second stage of easing lockdown, which will come into effect on the 12th April. The date is subject to the vaccination programme proving successful and cases staying low, with an official announcement on the 5th of April as to whether the stage can go ahead as planned.
If so, gyms will reopen alongside non-essential retail and pubs and restaurants outdoors. Before then, from the 29th March, outdoor sports courts will reopen and formal outdoor sports can resume.