Monday, March 16th, was the day that Jeannine Trimboli’s life changed. “That was the day we received the notice from Governor Cuomo that we would have to close at 8 PM that night,” she recalls. Jeannine is a certified personal trainer and owner of Real Fit Life, a private fitness club in Guilderland. Since that Monday in March, the only contact she has had with her members has been over the phone or online. Like many fitness professionals, Trimboli turned to social media to share workout and motivation videos to viewers, encouraging them to continue to seek safe opportunities for activity and exercise. Almost five months after the pandemic forced her to close her business doors, Trimboli is unsure when she will be able to have contact and resume in-person training sessions with her clients. “I have an inkling that it will be a very long time before we see gyms re-opening.”
Will gyms ever re-open?
Fitness studios, health clubs, and gyms in Massachusetts re-opened in Massachusetts on June 29th under Phase 3. Gov. Charlie Baker encouraged outdoor workouts when re-opening and mandated that gyms operate at 40% maximum capacity. There has been no communication in New York State since Governor Cuomo pulled gyms from Phase 4 of the state’s coronavirus reopening plan. “I was expecting it. I know I’m in the minority of other gym owners who have spoken to the media, I was not anticipating that we would be included,” Trimboli said. All fitness facilities are closed indefinitely as a class-action lawsuit and several individual gym owners are filing legal cases against the governor.
The International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), headquartered in Boston, works with thousands of health club members in the United States and tens of thousands globally. The organization recently sent a letter to every governor, highlighting safety protocols, practices, and standards for reopening facilities. IHRSA also released a coordinated media campaign, “gyms are clean.” The press release points to research that showcases safe facilities. The first example is a Norwegian study — the first and only — to show a randomized trial to test whether people who work out at gyms are at a greater risk of infection of the coronavirus. The results are encouraging because only one coronavirus case was traced from the 3,764 members (ages 18 to 64). That contraction occurred at the member’s workplace, not the gym.
The second example IHRSA referenced are contact tracing numbers from Arkansas, that at the time (June 26), showed 678 new cases reported, of which, .3% visited a gym. On June 26th, Arkansas had reported 18,740 cases. Today (July 16), the number of confirmed cases is 30,297. On the surface, these examples are promising. Still, public health experts rely on evidence-based research when creating recommendations for community health guidelines during a pandemic. This information comes from randomized trials that investigate the virus’ impact in large study populations. That research, as Trimboli suggests, points to gyms opening later, rather than sooner.
What we know about COVID-19
Our nation’s top epidemiologists, scientists, and medical professionals have all pointed out that COVID-19 is a novel virus, meaning this is a new threat to humans, one that we are learning more about the virus every day. Time is a critical resource that science requires to find a vaccine for coronavirus. While proponents for opening fitness centers focus on the “gyms are clean” message, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) points to the risk of contracting the virus in a close setting (within about 6 feet) through respiratory droplets. Trimboli understands how working out, even six feet apart, in a fitness club is different from the potential exposure while grocery shopping. “The longer you stay stagnant in one place, the higher the likelihood of you getting it. Unlike a grocery store where there is constant moving (walking through the store), in a gym, you are in a place where you are spending a lot of time in one space.”
As part of his announcement on the Phase 4 re-opening guidelines, Gov. Cuomo said that the state is studying whether droplets infected with the coronavirus can be inadvertently spread via air conditioning in crowded indoor spaces. Cuomo mandated that indoor malls, like Crossgates, can re-open if they have this special filtration in their heating, air conditioning, and ventilation systems. Trimboli stated that health clubs do not have the option to install filters with a MERV-13 rating like indoor malls. “Unfortunately, those conversations are not happening,” she commented.
The future for fitness
At every visit with a healthcare provider, we are told about the modifiable risk factors or lifestyle choices we can make to reduce the risk of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke. Two main changes are a heart-healthy diet and at least 30 minutes of daily activity and exercise. As a health professional, Trimboli says she is “in the center of the discussion” on creating safe workout opportunities. For now, she is posting online videos for at-home use or virtual training sessions. But this is not a long-term solution. “I recognize that we will be dealing with this virus, this pandemic for a long time. At some point, we are going to have to figure out how to live our lives.” It is unrealistic to suggest that we all can walk or run outdoors, even during nice weather, when a treadmill or cardio machine at a health club is the only form of exercise that some individuals with mobility restrictions can safely perform.
“We also need to talk about mental health. Many people who deal with depression and or anxiety also use exercise as a way to help deal with their coping mechanisms,” mentioned Trimboli. As science has proven the benefits of exercise for your body, findings have shown that individuals who exercise (for at least 45 minutes) three to five times a week have fewer recorded days of poor mental health than those who do not exercise. In one large US sample, team sports, cycling, and aerobic/gym activities were the three most popular associations. “We’re missing this. If this is going to go on as long as we think it is – we are going to need to find a way for people to pursue their mental and physical health.”
Written by Michael Arce, Host of HeartTalk presented by Capital Cardiology Associates