While the Philippines has eased lockdown restrictions at certain areas, gyms and fitness facilities remain closed. The Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) lists such businesses under Category IV—industries that are not allowed to operate under both enhanced and general community quarantine.
According to the guidelines released by the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF), Category IV establishments may only begin business under the modified general community quarantine (MGCQ), provided they operate at 50 percent capacity and with special provisions for workers with existing medical conditions, elderly employees, and pregnant women. As of writing, no areas are under MGCQ.
While gyms remain closed, serious fitness enthusiasts have been creative with their exercises, with some investing in equipment, following home workout videos and online classes, or running up and down the stairs for cardio.
“The gym is a sanctuary for me. Going to the gym is an essential daily habit, just like brushing my teeth or taking a shower,” admits marketing manager Arthur Peña. He’s led a weights-dependent lifestyle program for years now, helping him lose weight and strengthen his body for his favorite sport, volleyball. And, like man, he’s also resorted to creating his own home gym.
Meanwhile, communication executive Mori Rodriguez views the gym as a place for focused training under the watchful eye and steady hands of professionals. “The gym accommodates a community of like-minded individuals who are serious about achieving results through disciplined regimen and habit,” he says. For Rodriguez, focus and supervision are important—he feels that his workouts are more efficient with a trainer guiding him. Currently, he works out with his trainer via Zoom.
Philippe Magalona adds that seeing other people working hard in the gym pushes him to go the extra mile. “You crave for that energy and drive to be a better version of yourself,” says the model. “Also, you get to focus better when you’re at the gym than at home.”
Much as these gentlemen miss the feeling of sweating it out in the gym, they are also wary of the safety risks involved—even if they wear protective equipment or if the facilities sanitize their space and equipment thoroughly. Some fitness enthusiasts are even thinking of foregoing a visit to the gym, even if these businesses open soon and enforce strict sanitation procedures.
For instance, assistant professorial lecturer Leandro Lim Quizon has been dependent on the gym to sharpen his focus for working and studying. He’s willing to give this up momentarily for safety reasons. “I honestly want to go back to the gym, but I also believe that in our current situation and how the government and the general public are handling the crisis, I think that it is still safer to continue exercising at home.”
Quizon feels liable if he unwittingly brings home the virus and compromises the health of his household. “Consistency in terms of sanitation and maintenance is key, but how sure are we that everyone is following these protocols diligently? I know that I said that gyms and fitness centers are spaces of discipline, but I don’t think everybody adheres to this. The simple task of returning weights back to the rack or wiping the equipment after use is still an issue.”
What would put his mind at ease is the availability of a vaccine. “Mass testing, tracing, de-escalation, and healthy system preparedness are some of the factors that I am also looking into,” Quizon, who comes from a family of doctors, adds. “I think that we can contribute by patiently waiting for the situation to improve.”
Some gymgoers, like Rand Jester Poquiz, are also considering forfeiting their memberships. “I think it wouldn’t hurt to have a gym-holiday for six to twelve months and just focus on alternative home workouts, food intake control, and mental wellness,” says the events and marketing professional. Atty. Quino Reyes adds that now is the perfect time for everyone to shake up their routines such as varying the intensity of your usual exercises. “Just look at tai chi practitioners—as they move, some think that they’re pushing air, while others imagine that they’re pushing against a large boulder—that’s why they shake and sweat. It’s the same principle with other exercises like yoga—whatever levels of resistance you apply, you gain the corresponding benefits,” he explains.
Stricter sanitation procedures
Previously, the Philippine branch of the International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness (IFBB) appealed to the IATF on May 1 to reconsider opening gyms under GCQ. The letter-appeal, IFBB president Rowena Walters writes, represents “the collective voice of more than a thousand gym owners and more than 10,000 trainers and workers who were displaced and continue to suffer because of the prolonged business closure.” She also emphasizes that their appeal does not intend to “add burden to the National Government and jeopardize its effort to manage this crisis.” They have also reiterated that “maintaining a strong and healthy body boosts immunity, which is [a] primary shield and armor against COVID-19 and other diseases.”
To strengthen their case, the IFBB included 16 proposed hygiene measures for all gyms and studios to follow under GCQ. The list includes rules on workout times and schedules (no walk-ins, no lingering, pre-scheduled gym use, one-hour limit for users), social distancing inside the gym (no group classes, no sparring, trainers distancing from clients, and varying limits on gymgoer count depending on floor area, plastic dividers between machines/equipment), proper protective equipment to be worn by all users (face shields, masks, and gloves, bringing own towels), thorough and frequent sanitation (hand sanitizer stations, foot baths, personal alcohol supply), and health checks for clients and personnel (thermal scanning and, subject to availability, rapid test kits).
Similarly, the Philippine Association of Fitness and Wellness Professionals (PAFWP) recently wrote a position paper on the role of the fitness and wellness industry in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the document, they remind people that “[o]fficial measures that restrict people’s movements in the presence of the COVID-19 crisis do not necessarily mean that physical activity must be limited or that all forms of exercise must be eliminated entirely,” reiterating that exercise delivers overall physical and mental health benefits.
While the PAFWP writes that they respect the government’s decision to “to categorize fitness and wellness gyms and centers as a high-risk location for contacting the disease,” they also believe that the fitness and wellness industry “can contribute toward the management, and prevention of COVID-19.” Should they open in the future, they have “proposed guidelines as a basis for the restructuring and realignment of fitness and sports activities.” These include stricter policies encompassing educational infection control programs, hand washing protocol & approved disinfectants, specific social distancing measures for exercise, communal, and waiting areas, and immediate steps when contact is made.
No certainty at all
As a gymgoer and medical professional, Dr. Lee Roi Buenaventura understands that exercise is one of the pillars of good health. However, he isn’t keen on returning to the gym, even if facilities employ stricter sanitation procedures. “Going to the gym is a good way to establish quality exercise. However, if there would be a risk of getting the disease there, would the benefits outweigh the risks and consequences that come with it?”
Should a limited number of clients be restricted to a predetermined schedule of just one hour, with 30 minutes to one-hour cleaning breaks in between, Dr. Buenaventura wonders if gymgoers would be able to maximize this scheme. “A one-hour session without stretching or massage isn’t healthy,” the wellness consultant and internist says. He also notes that even if gyms are able reduce to the number of people inside, these users are not always from the same household or living units.
“In addition to possible exposure inside the gym, one must understand that a gymgoer is also traveling from point A to point B—that is, from home to the gym and vice versa, for instance,” says Dr. Renzo Guinto, a Doctor of Public Health graduate from Harvard. “You may not get the virus from the gym, but from the journey—and worse, bring it to your loved ones at home.”
As gyms are enclosed spaces, owners will also have to be particular with their ventilation systems if they open soon. In a recent article published in the Emerging Infectious Diseases journal by Dankook University Hospital in South Korea, researchers found evidence linking increased risk for COVID-19 transmission with intense physical exercise in densely populated sports facilities. By March 9, the researchers identified 112 COVID-19 cases associated with high intensity fitness dance classes in 12 different sports facilities in Cheonan City. Researchers think that the large class sizes, small spaces, and intensity of the workouts may have facilitated the spread of the virus. Moreover, the humid atmosphere inside a sports facility and air flow caused by exercise can create bigger, denser isolated droplets that may increase the risk of transmission.
But even with masks worn and air filters in place, Dr. Buenaventura thinks that once gymgoers start sweating, not only will they feel uncomfortable, but they might potentially compromise the protective properties of their mask. He echoes sentiments expressed by sports science professionals in a New York Times article, where they mention how masks—especially damp ones—may hinder proper breathing and affect athletic performance.
Dr. Guinto also notes that research on the lifespan of COVID-19 on surfaces is still an evolving area of study. "Since there are many things we do not know about the virus, I agree that staff and even gymgoers themselves must be proactive and diligent with disinfecting surfaces and equipment to possibly reduce transmission. They can bring their own disinfectant to wipe the equipment before and after each use."
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As far as rapid tests are concerned, Dr. Buenaventura thinks that the kit’s utility and use are yet to be understood well by the general population. “Any medical test requires an interpretation and guidance from a doctor. Who would facilitate the test? Who would pay for the testing? Would it be shouldered by the gym, or would it be included in membership dues of the gymgoers? These need to be specified.”
And while some fitness enthusiasts are expecting a COVID-19 vaccine to be developed by 2021, Dr. Guinto reminds them not to be overly optimistic. “Pharmaceutical companies can only manufacture so much, after all. Moreover, once vaccines become available, the limited supply will be sold to the highest bidder.”
Dr. Buenaventura insists that people must stay home as much as they can, avoiding exposure to strangers with unknown health statuses. He also invites gymgoers to revisit their reasons for working out and translate that into more creative alternatives. “I believe going back to the gym can wait. We can perform similar exercises at home and reap the approximate benefits. Besides, our main objective when working out is to be healthy, right? If we visit the gym and increase our chances of getting sick, we’re doing the opposite of what we want. I understand that there are businesses on the line, and we need to sustain our sources of livelihood, but I’d rather be secure for now.”