TORONTO — Sweaty, clamorous, high-octane: fitness centres offer cathartic respite from our unforgiving daily rhythms as we gallop from one task to another. Gyms also serve as a community hub, where workout buddies can connect and improve their health together. For many, that hour-long workout session is the designated and only Me Time they are afforded in their schedules. The rare opportunity to recharge, to meditate, to release.
In response to the spike in COVID-19 cases, the Ford government has cast gym goers out of their athletic paradise for the rest of the month. As of Oct. 10, high-contact locations like fitness centres closed for 28 days as part of a modified set of Stage 3 restrictions for high case regions.
Although the city plans to reopen gyms next week, the closure has engendered its own host of issues. The ramifications are felt most acutely by those without any access to fitness equipment at home that rely on gyms for the maintenance of physical and mental health.
According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), exercise is paramount during the pandemic as it simultaneously produces a “direct positive effect” on the immune system and counteracts “confinement stress” during prolonged isolation.¹
“Each bout of exercise, particularly whole-body dynamic cardio-respiratory exercise, instantaneously mobilizes literally billions of immune cells,” Richard J. Simpson writes for ACSM. “Especially those cell types that are capable of carrying out effector functions such as the recognition and killing of virus-infected cells.”²
That said, the closure of gyms will be even more precarious during winter months in Canada, when outdoor activity is thwarted by frigid temperatures and icy pavements. While citizens can enjoy the fitness amenities nature has to offer, the remaining days of outdoor recreation are certainly numbered.
How do you achieve that immediate, visceral relief for the mind and body without public fitness facilities? Is the gym replaceable?
I ask Torontonians how they have been staying active since the revised Stage 3 regulations, how they plan on making the most of the dwindling days of sunshine and autumnal warmth, and what they will do when the city is knee-deep in snow and outdoor fitness is no longer viable.
“WFH” denotes “work from home” but recently, online resources have made it feasible to also work out from home. Suki Lei is a fitness enthusiast who has deftly embraced the new modes of training, and has reconstructed her routine accordingly.
“Gyms offered virtual training and a lot of them were even free,” she said. “I honestly have grown accustomed to working out at home in the past few months.”
The shift was not without its own set of hurdles, however. Lei said that the shuttering of gyms initially threw her fitness pattern into disarray. But thankfully, the rapid industry transition to remote training, coupled with her own adaptability, put her back on track.
“I didn’t want all the efforts and hard work put in over the years go in vain,” said Lei.
“I was going to the gym on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for resistance training plus light core workouts at home on Tuesday and Thursday,” she said about her pre-pandemic exercise program. “Sometimes I would do a long run on Saturdays depending on my schedule and the weather. Sunday was always a rest day.”
Lei has since downloaded a fitness app that she follows five days a week to augment her virtual gym lessons and to introduce variety into her routine. She said she found this hybrid strategy maintained the momentum from years of dedication and consistency.
“I actually managed to work out even twice a day on most days,” Lei said. We also added more and more gym equipment at home; we basically have turned the entire first floor to a home gym.”
Moving forward, Lei hopes to take a gradual and sustainable approach to her new-fangled fitness journey. “What I have been doing and will continue to do is to set feasible short-term goals; keep working hard to crush those goals; document my fitness journey and take progress photos.”
The volatility of the pandemic and the erratic regulations make her hesitant to plan too far ahead, Lei said.
“It’s hard to predict the future. Instead, I take one meal, one workout, one moment at a time.”
Gymnast and coach Mariah Chong-East lives and breathes gymnastics: she began practicing the sport when she was six and boasts many accolades from competitions throughout the years.
Even for this decorated, lifelong athlete, COVID-19 restrictions have disrupted her fitness routine. “It is a lot harder for me to get back into being active when I stopped for long periods of time,” said Chong-East, who studied Fitness and Health Promotion in college.
“It’s been really difficult to work out at home. I do try to do bodyweight workouts or use the weights I have available; even going on a bike ride or a ten-minute walk.”
The sedentary days throughout lockdown have negatively impacted other parts of her life too, Chong-East said, reflecting on her overall lassitude and apathy as a result of reduced physical activity.
“Not having a routine and working out makes me feel really unproductive,” she said, “which usually turns into phases of not wanting to do anything. The smallest task feels like so much work.”
Undeterred, however, Chong-East has devised a strategy to rejuvenate her exercise regimen during the upcoming winter months.
“I plan on starting with the bare minimum: doing stretches and working on flexibility, then working out one to two times a week, doing home workouts consistently,” she said. “Once I’ve been consistently doing that, I will try to work out three times a week and so on.”
Chong-East is now in the process of launching her own line of gymnastics apparel, Suitable.
“Gymnastics was and still is such an important part of my life,” she said about her favourite sport. “It has shaped me to be the person I am today and for that I am grateful.”
Exercise has always been about team recreation for Bradley Randell, who started playing hockey at age eight. Before the closures, he and his friends attended the gym every other day, alternating between exercises that targeted the upper and lower body. Synchronized exercises with his peers helped him find passion in fitness, he said.
“We turned it into friendly competitions to see who would get the best results through their respective routines.”
As promising as the plan was, it ground to a halt when the province enforced Stage 3 closures: “This affected us a lot: none of us had much exercise equipment at home,” he said, reflecting on how the pandemic tore he and his friends’ fitness plan asunder.
“I miss getting to go to the gym as freely as I used to. It was something I looked forward to and had me excited every time I went.”
During the first two months of lockdown, Randell and his friends adopted a home fitness plan consisting of bodyweight exercises. That adjustment, however, was curtailed when the group’s initial enthusiasm petered out.
“It was hard to stay motivated at home and complete the full workout,” Randell said. “This resulted in workouts slowly becoming shorter and shorter until I basically stopped completely.”
Knowing that exercise offers a cornucopia of benefits, Randell is eager to revitalize his regimen while staying vigilant of the pitfalls of home workouts. According to Randell, the stimulating gym environment and the presence of exercise equipment contributed greatly to his drive to exercise.
“I have been doing short core exercises with a few push-ups and a hike on weekends, but I have not been motivated to do much more than that.”
Randell is a first-year student studying to become a social service worker. Even though he is juggling readings and assignments, he makes time to do brief workouts several times a week. “It’s a great way to relieve stress and focus on something else for a little,” he said.
Shaiza Zafar echoes Randell’s sentiment, as she likewise became disaffected with exercise without the gym, where the zeal and vigour of fellow gym-goers are highly infectious.
“I felt my motivation to actually workout diminish, the atmosphere the gym creates with people working hard really affected my desire to work out more often,” she said.
Prior to the COVID-19 restrictions, the third-year psycholinguistics student had a created well-rounded fitness circuit with one hour of cardio followed by another hour of weights, each day focusing on either arms or legs with three sets of 15 reps hitting different muscles, she said.
“My original gym routine was completely obliterated by gym closures,” Zafar said, who has still managed to get her cardio through running and cycling.
“But on the other hand, my weight routine is simply non-existent. Nowadays I use resistance bands to strengthen my leg workouts and try to use the dumbbells in any way possible.”
Now that she has fully integrated indoor exercises into her workout schedule, Zafar does not anticipate any drastic changes to her routine in the upcoming winter months. She might, however, take up ice skating or snowboarding, she said.
Perhaps most remarkably, Zafar has discovered creative techniques to get her weight training in without specialized machinery at her disposal.
“I use any given opportunity to lift heavy objects, such as laundry or groceries, just to get some bicep curls in.”
Desmond Saunders is not one to sit still: now approaching his late 50s, exercise has been a constant companion in his life. In his decades of fitness dedication, Saunders has learned that wellness transcends the gym’s four walls: it is an all-encompassing mindset.
“You realize there’s no sense working out and then going for a six-pack of beer after because that’s going to destroy your workout,” he said. “It all goes hand in hand.”
From years of trial and error, Saunders has learned to identify and prevent his foibles when it comes to exercise. He is not afraid to acknowledge the human impulse for idleness, either: “Inherently, we’re all lazy,” he said.
He characterizes the oscillation between his physically active and sedentary periods as a roller coaster, but it is a cycle that we all have the capacity to control. According to Saunders, the secret is harnessing that sense of triumph each time you work out.
“I’m able to prolong the positive as opposed to the negative aspect of the roller coaster ride,” he said. “It’s the satisfaction of knowing that you’ve accomplished something. You just feel good, mentally and physically, that you didn’t give in to the laziness.”
He said he has “always been active,” doing solitary sports like cycling and working as a letter carrier for two decades before becoming a postal clerk. His vocational transition from outdoor to indoor work hasn’t hindered his physical activity, either. The Canada Post plant he works at has an employee gym, where Saunders loved to exercise before the pandemic.
Saunders now scopes out vacant spots in the postal plant to perform his workouts during breaks.
“I found a place where I can do some push–ups, pull–ups, and legwork on the stairs,” he said. “It’s great to have it done before I get home because my motivation factor slips a lot when I get home.”
Seemingly impervious to the gym closures, Saunders is setting long-term fitness goals in the coming year.
“Starting next year, at 57, I’m going to start doing research on the best foods to put in my body to get the most muscle gain,” he said. “And to really cut down the body fat just to see what I would look like at age 60 if I put my mind to it.”
“I used to be quite the regular gym goer prior to COVID,” Harry Liu said. The software developer and burgeoning entrepreneur had been a religious gym goer for five years prior to the COVID-19 regulations, attending four times per week for hour-long strength training sessions.
“The closure was the nail in the coffin, and I do not picture myself working out in a gym again—unless it’s my personal home gym but I’m not getting one anytime soon.”
Yet, departing from his gym routine did not stop Liu from exercising. He has since reacquainted himself with activities—inline skating, hip-hop dancing, and, more recently, skateboarding—that he had abandoned in favour of gym workouts in the last few years.
“I personally would never have been able to picture myself getting into these activities the previous year,” he said.
But Liu has never been one to cower in the face of change. He has accepted this forcibly modified routine as a happy accident that forced him to interrogate his impetus for working out.
“It’s perfect timing as I was going to the gym out of maintenance and not because I particularly enjoyed it,” he admitted.
To Liu, the upheaval of his routine proved to be less a calamity and more a blessing. “The closure liberated me from the gym and pushed me to find other physical activities that I enjoy more.”
He plans to continue his rollerblading and skateboarding excursions until Old Man Winter inevitably returns to preside over the city’s natural spaces. Liu has hopes that the rinks will reopen by then so he can trade his inline skates for ice skates.
The swimming pool is Olexandr Yeremeyev’s natural habitat. Having swam competitively as a child, he still dives headlong into a pool whenever he wants to decompress or get his blood flowing. Unless you own a pool (lucky you), swimming is one of those sports that unfortunately cannot be transposed to a home workout.
“I used to go [swimming] at least three times a week to either a university pool or just a public one,” he said. “This was really beneficial for my back, as it keeps all the tensions away from it.”
Yeremeyev has found alternatives to his usual indoor workouts by using outdoor gym facilities. Even though he quickly adapted his fitness routine, Yeremeyev finds that his new regimen does not measure up to the traditional gym experience, “lacking the preferred intensity and frequency.”
“I started going to outside workout playgrounds but they were not fully able to compensate for all the physical work I enjoyed before,” the avid gym-goer said.
He also harbours misgivings about the long-term sustainability of an outdoor fitness routine, given how rapidly we are approaching winter. “With the recent temperature drops it is becoming way harder to stay active,” he said.
A social butterfly, exercise is very much a communal recreation for Yeremeyev, who is fain to work out with friends. Gym closures as well as physical distancing measures have made people complacent with staying indoors and reluctant to convene for exercise, he observed.
“It is becoming extremely difficult to find a buddy to do something active.”
Yeremeyev is making the most of the final weeks of sunshine by communing with nature, going on hikes with friends and exploring new territory beyond city limits.
Akaash Moorshed has used the free time provided by the lockdown to reconstitute his fitness blueprint, successfully rekindling his love for exercise.
“I’ve actually made a lot of progress in my relationship with health,” he said, reflecting on how he has customized a fitness program to achieve his personal targets. “I’ve been forced to really look into nutrition and figure out my own answer to how to stay fit.”
During his months at home, Moorshed conducted extensive research on health and wellness, helping him discover alternative modes of fitness that go against convention.
“Western traditions that men follow—such as heavyweights, low reps, getting your muscles to burn—just haven’t really worked out for me in the past,” he said.
“I feel like a more gradual progression towards that [goal] weight is a lot better for me. From home, I’ve been able to look after my diet and just do some light workouts, such as jogging in place, stretching, yoga, push-ups, sit-ups, crunches, lunges—things like that.”
To Moorshed, maximum exertion is not the end goal of exercising. He instead gravitates towards meditative, low-intensity workouts that ground him in the minutia of his body.
“I’m enjoying the progress: COVID-19 really hasn’t stopped anything,” he said. “I’ve really started to appreciate stretching out your muscles and doing things gradually instead of straining them and looking to feel a burn.”
Moorshed likens his leisurely exercise philosophy to singing, wherein singers prevent vocal cord injury by taking care not to exhaust those muscles. “For example, Miley Cyrus had to get vocal surgery because she had overused her voice box.”
Physical activity alone is not enough though, Moorshed adds. He is mindful of what he puts in his body, too, especially in supplementing nutritional deficiencies.
“I recommend taking vitamin D because we live in Canada,” he said. “There’s very little sunlight even when the sun is out, and taking magnesium because it isn’t really in our foods.”
Hopefully these suggestions inspire you to seek creative ways to exercise. How do you plan to stay fit during the winter months? Tell us in the comments below!