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Sarah Ingham: Gyms and Fitness Studios: Confounding Covid-19

An article by Sarah Ingham, who tweets at @inghamsarahj. Sarah launched the Gym-Goers’ Covid-19 Survey.

On a spectrum of illness that runs from a mild cold to the Black Death, many continue to put Covid-19 at the fatal end of the range.

This is unsurprising. The initial, indelible images of the illness would not have been out of place in a disaster movie. People apparently lying dead in the eerily empty streets of Wuhan; the intubated patients in Italian intensive care units reminiscent of autopsy scenes; teams in hazmat suits. Speculation that this particular coronavirus may have been cooked up in a biological warfare lab added to the apocalyptic nature of the threat.

With the Steven Soderberg film Contagion suddenly more like fact than fiction, many didn’t wait for the Government officially to order the Lockdown on 23 March. By the second week of March they were already shielding themselves and their families: children were pulled out of school; essentials were stockpiled, events cancelled.

The government might have been following the science, but the great British public followed its gut instinct and staying at home. It looked wise in the light of the prediction of 500,000 deaths, which it later transpired, was instrumental in locking down the country.

Death at Teatime sounds like a cosy Agatha Christie mystery, but is in fact what the daily Downing Street press briefings became. This statistical ritual, with its rising death toll, first in hundreds, then in thousands, then in tens of thousands, reinforced initial impressions about the infectiousness and lethality of Covid-19.

When gyms and fitness studios reopened on 25th July, four long months had passed since the Lockdown was introduced. But it’s in the context of the indoor sports sector that we can question popular assumptions about Covid-19 and whether State-induced mortal fear promulgated by Government ministers is justified.

Among the mysteries surrounding Covid-19 – including when it actually arrived in Britain – is how any of the country’s gyms-goers and fitness studio fiends escaped it before the government imposed the Lockdown.

Anyone who was a regular in one of country’s indoor fitness centres before their closure in March can testify that most were hardly operating-theatre sterile, particularly in city centres where space is at a premium. Machines or mats crammed together, shared equipment, crowded changing rooms… Many working out got up close and personal with the heavy breathing and sweat of their fellow fitness fans whether they wanted to or not, in environments which were often strangers to anti-viral wipes. ‘Hot yoga’ fans relished classes in fetid, rammed studios heated to close to 100 degrees.

Covid-19 was supposed to be dangerously infectious, justifying the emergency Coronavirus Act of 25th March which enabled the Police, immigration and public health officials to detain ‘potentially infectious persons’. Civil libertarians across the political spectrum have expressed concerns about the Act: the Institute for Economic Affairs states it imposes ‘greatest restrictions on liberty in modern British history’ while Liberty says it ‘strips away our civil liberties’.

The enforced closure of gyms and studios followed a record-breaking year. The 2019 State of the UK Fitness Industry Report by LeisureDB highlights that total UK membership broke the ten million mark, with one in seven of us now members of a gym, while the number of fitness centres reached an all-time high. The industry was worth more than £5bn a year.

Whether regulars will return to their pre-Covid fitness regimes is the question that must be haunting the industry. With predictions about working from home, is working out at home also going to become the new normal? And just as privately-owned centres might be soon feeling the financial burn, public fitness facilities, many funded by local authorities, are facing an uncertain future: reports last month from fitness trade body ukactive suggested that Britain is ‘sleep walking’ towards losing perhaps half of them’.

Regulars to gyms, as well as yoga and Pilates studios have found them very different places compared with the pre-Lockdown era, with screens around machines such as cross-trainers, fewer students in classes and more cleaning.

Like restaurants and cinemas, gyms can create a safe, socially-distanced environment, but it is not automatic that punters will have the confidence to return to them.

Since March, the government’s Project Coronavirus Fear has been relentless, putting Covid-19 at the Black Death end of the illness scale, bolstered by a media which has delighted in drinking the corona apocalypse Kool-Aid.

But if Covid-19 were lethal and infectious enough to justify a four-month Lockdown that was only supposed to last three weeks, then surely our indoor gyms and fitness studios would have been the places to find high rates of transmission?

Although the numbers dropped throughout the month, one boss of a leading high-end gym chain estimates there were at least 20 million gym visits in March, as peak virus was being reached. Wouldn’t a London-based yoga teacher who was teaching 350 students a week have caught it, along with her colleagues and students? She didn’t; they didn’t: why not?

An earlier version of this article appeared at Conservative Home.

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10 thoughts on “Sarah Ingham: Gyms and Fitness Studios: Confounding Covid-19

  1. Many people seem driven in large part to get their view on this pandemic from their lived experiences, rather than the data we are given. While the data is telling us one thing, colleagues and family will still respond to my me pointing the way to such sources with some anecdote, some event about someone they know which reaffirms their fear of this virus.

    An article I came across recently used the work of Daniel Kanneman and referenced the power of anchoring to an original position to explain this. Such bias is extremely difficult to shift. I think that is what I am seeing. Despite the strength of the data people are invested heavily in their March position, obviously not helped and certainly reinforced by the government messaging and amplifying effect of mainstream media headlines.

    In this light your point on why a ready made virus factory saw little disease can carry enormous weight. Even without the actual data to confirm the assertion, it speaks at a level people respond to. Their wheels turn, a door opens.

  2. I suspect for the same reason a 67 year old , eating and drinking in Bangkok china town amongst Wuhan visitors in January didn’t get it. We are being lied to.

  3. Many local authorities staff seem quite happy not to be dealing with the public (while still being paid) and I’m sure the cost savings from keeping facilities closed hasn’t gone unnoticed by local government.

  4. Why didn’t they get it?
    Well half of them, as with the general population, already had immunity.
    All of them were young and fit, taking good care of their vitamin intake, and many also exercised outdoors making the most of the winter sun.
    So they were the least likely people to develop symptoms, and highly unlikely to need a hospital.
    I would guess that.most gym goers did get it, but as gym goers are younger, fitter, and less likely to have heart, lung or other problems they suffered nothing worse than a cold and likely not even that, so never got diagnosed.

  5. Please spare a thought for those of us stuck in the confounding Leicester lockdown who still do not have access to our gyms when the rest of the country does.
    We need these places to improve our physical and mental wellbeing.

  6. Gyms will thrive if people swap to home working – you need escape from those same four walls and isolation and the local gym offers just that.

  7. Not sure why gyms would be particular hubs of transmission. Mostly people are not ‘on top of each other’. Seems to be more like crammed public transport and also bars in winter. And hospitals of course. I would suggest most likely a lot of gym people did get it but being younger would have a higher % of asymptomatic cases. So just didn’t know.

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