Will fitness enthusiasts return to their gyms when they reopen?

Nelly Gonzalez lives fitness and teaches group workout classes at her gym, but she has no plans to go back anytime soon. (Andres Gonzalez)

Nelly Gonzalez lives fitness and teaches group workout classes at her gym, but she has no plans to go back anytime soon. (Andres Gonzalez)

Are you on the front lines of the coronavirus? Help us report on the pandemic.

For a long time, Carmen Hernandez has incorporated weightlifting, and classes at her local gym, into a larger effort to stay healthy and set an example for her adult daughters.

In conjunction with a healthy diet, the exercise is meant to prevent some of the medical issues the Hernandez family is vulnerable to, including high blood pressure. But breaking a sweat has never been more important than since she started working from home in March and saw her workload increase.

“It’s a big difference when you’re home 24/7,” said Hernandez, a Camden County resident. “You don’t leave the house, only when you really need to, not seeing other people —  it starts taking a toll on your self, your head, your way of thinking. For me, my stress-reliever is exercising.”

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Still, her beloved gym, as well as barre studios, climbing gyms, and swimming pools across the region, have been closed for the past few months to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

That may soon no longer be the case. Gyms in New Jersey could open as early as next week, pending the green light from the state.  Southeastern Pennsylvania gyms will be able to open once counties enter the green phase of recovery.

Which leaves Hernandez and others like her with a choice: Do they return to their workout facilities?

The answer is complicated and can depend on the facility of choice and personal fitness goals, as well as how much people invested in personal home gyms during the coronavirus shutdowns.

Between 30-minute virtual sessions with a personal trainer twice a week and fitness “challenges” she does with a Latina fitness group, Hernandez has figured out a way to break a sweat from home.

Carmen Hernandez is going to wait and see how gyms reopen. For now, she’s sticking to outdoor runs and virtual personal training sessions with Nicholas Krienes (L). (Courtesy Carmen Hernandez)

Reports of gym owners who reopened ahead of state orders permeated the news cycles a few weeks back. One gym-goer was arrested as he squeezed a workout in, but recent national polls suggest the majority of fitness aficionados might not be as eager.

Maybe not just yet…

An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll conducted in mid-May found that if gyms are allowed to reopen over the “next few weeks,” just 24% of the more than 1,000 people surveyed said they would probably or definitely return.

A more recent Morning Consult poll, conducted last week, didn’t move the needle by much. That poll found only 22% of the 1,500 people it surveyed were comfortable going back to the gym.

For now, Hernandez stands with the majority and plans to wait at least a month to see what precautions facilities take, how they work out glitches, and how gym-goers respond to changes. Pre-pandemic, Hernandez said, there were plenty of members who ignored machine etiquette.

“How many times do you see somebody get off a treadmill and just walk away, don’t even wipe it down?” she asked.

Nelly Gonzalez, a fitness enthusiast in Philadelphia who teaches group classes after work, plans to wait until 2021. She misses the sense of community her group classes offer, she said, but it’s that very communal environment she sees as a potential way to spread the coronavirus.

It’s just harder to control your breathing when in the thick of an exercise, Gonzalez said.

“As an instructor, you’re yelling and screaming out into the gym with your microphone on, and it’s very challenging for anything not to spread, especially if you’re asymptomatic,” she said.

Erica Bernal loves her big box gym’s childcare service and working out from home without someone to watch her toddlers is stressful. Even if her gym and the daycare inside reopen, Bernal said she’s not planning to go back immediately. (Courtesy of Erica Bernal)

Erica Bernal, another Philly resident, said she’ll also delay her return to the gym, even though she desperately wants to go because her facility offered child care, which her two toddlers looked forward to, and helped Bernal work out without distractions.

“[My husband will] say, ‘Oh, go for a run by yourself, and I’ll stay here with the kids,’” Bernal said. “But it’s always in the back of my head like, ‘I have to hurry up back home because the kids are so used to now me being with them.’”

The very perk her popular gym franchise offers is also a risk for her children in this climate, she said.

“Toddlers are not going to adhere to all the guidelines that are necessary to keep them safe,” said Bernal. “They put everything in their mouth, they’re not going to keep their mask on … when they see other kids, they’re not going to stay six feet away from them.”

Bernal is currently using a phone app to guide her workouts, and she has a twin running stroller she pushes when exercising with her children. She said it feels like the public is learning something new about COVID-19 every day, so she’d rather wait to hit the gym again.

Of course, there are some exercises that can’t be replaced easily at home, including swimming. Triathletes in the region and people who prefer low-impact exercises said they’ve been struggling.

Nancy Lopez, a New Castle resident, has already been back to the pool after three months without — Delaware allowed its gyms to open at 30% capacity June 1.

“I feel accomplished when I swim, as opposed to doing land exercises,” she said. “It’s something you could work your way up to, as far as stamina, quicker.”

There are a couple of reasons Lopez was eager to get back into the water: She already thought her facility was clean beforehand, she has always been the type of person to sanitize the doorknob, and she’s happy with the precautions her gym is taking.

Swim times have to be scheduled in advance, and people have to wear masks when they come into the facility to check in. Lopez said there are plans to incorporate temperature checks in the future.

“I feel more confident in going to the fitness center than going to a restaurant right now, like I don’t plan to go to a restaurant for another 30 or 60 days, till I see how everything pans out.”

Lopez is of the mindset that living with COVID-19 is the new normal. So at the risk of being punny, she said she’d rather just “dive into life.”

Support the news you'll need in 2021


Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal