A ‘new normal’ for fitness? Two gyms talk about how it’s going to happen

May 2, 2020
PHOTO: (Left) @urbanashramyoga | Instagram, (Right) Courtesy of Fitness First Philippines

ON Monday, April 27, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern declared that the country had “won the battle” against the coronavirus.

With cases trending downward to the point that the New Zealand health care system can handle any new infections, Ardern is confident that they had successfully flattened the curve and are ready to reopen some businesses.

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The day after, a coalition of three fitness groups — the Exercise Association of New Zealand, the NZ Register of Fitness Professionals, and Yoga New Zealand — sent a document to gyms and fitness studios around the country.

The document, “Key Items to Consider When Considering Physical Re-opening,” posed a set of questions to gym owners about things they should consider to avoid COVID-19 cases from flaring up again because of their operations.

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How will your facility limit the number of people to comply with social distancing requirements?

How will you enforce social distancing?

How will you deal with equipment shared between members?

What are your new cleaning protocols?

Will you continue to offer virtual classes?

In the Philippines, gyms will still remain closed, even after the enhanced community quarantine eases into a more relaxed general community quarantine. (However, Interior Secretary Eduardo Año has said that this might change, pending further discussion.)

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To talk about how gyms will transition to the new normal, SPIN Life talked to two different studios.

The first, Evolution Wellness Philippines, might not be immediately familiar, but it’s one of the biggest players in the local fitness industry. It runs both Fitness First and Celebrity Fitness in the Philippines, and is one of the biggest gym chains in the nation, with about 30,000 members.

Meanwhile, Urban Ashram is an independent yoga studio founded in 2011, with two branches around Metro Manila.

Here’s how both gyms will transition to a new normal in fitness.

Fitness always comes first

COVID-19 has not been kind to Evolution Wellness.

This is understatement at a massive scale. The pandemic has not been beneficial to business, period. But gyms, which by definition operate on a face-to-face model where members show up to have a good sweat, have been hit particularly hard by shelter-in-place orders.

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“Our business model is built on monthly membership dues as a source of revenue,” explained Mark Ellis, country manager. “Since the ECQ was imposed, we have not been billing our members and have therefore not been able to generate any income since March.”

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That’s two months with no money. It employs hundreds of team members — as the company calls its staff — in multiple locations across the country. Full-time rank-and-filers can still continue to receive financial assistance, but senior executives have volunteered to take a pay cut over the next few months.

Like most of the fitness industry, Fitness First and Celebrity Fitness also had to make the tire-screeching swerve into an all-digital business. They were better prepared than most, as they were the local arm of a regional brand. Both gyms tapped into their Asia-Pacific network for online classes and content — yoga lessons streamed from Malaysia, for example, or a lower body workout with a Singaporean coach.

“To date, we have made available more than 200 classes, generating more than 5 million views,” said Ellis. Some of these classes have even been opened to the public via their social media pages.

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But, he continued, “We recognize that nothing can replace the experience of working out inside the gym.”

In the early days of the virus, Fitness First was among the first gyms to publish a public advisory on the safety measures they were taking against COVID-19. Perhaps, at the time, they were only playing it safe — who knew, then, that enhanced community quarantine would happen? But when their gyms finally reopen, members can expect a new level of stringent safety measures beyond temperature checks and barbell wipedowns.

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“Contactless” seems to be Evolution Wellness’s new watchword in the post-pandemic “new normal.” Personal trainers will have a no-contact policy, and some equipment will be rearranged and isolated. Numerous signs, both actual and on social media, will remind members, over and over, to maintain physical distance. It is even developing apps for both Fitness First and Celebrity Fitness for members to pre-book floor space and slots in group classes — making it easier for club managers to make sure sessions remain at socially distanced levels.

Even as the final reopening date of gyms is still up in the air in the Philippines, Ellis is hopeful that demand will come roaring back.

“The coronavirus scare has affected the attitude of Filipinos positively towards health as they became more concerned about keeping fit,” he told SPIN Life. “We expect this to translate to an increase in the number of individuals wanting to join a gym to sustain their physical and mental wellness.”

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Of course, the reopening of gyms is a matter of "when" and not "if." In the meantime, as their gyms lie empty, doors chained and padlocked, some Fitness First team members are practicing a new way of improving community health: by donating food packs and household goods.

A new haven

The Taal eruption in January already feels so long ago. But it was that event — an ashy foreshadowing of things to come — that already sounded the alarm bells for Maricar Holopainen, who operates Urban Ashram.

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News of infections at the tail end of Lunar New Year further convinced Holopainen that the situation would change rapidly.


Fearing that a health scare would kill a face-to-face business like Urban Ashram, “We started recording our classes late February and provided online recorded classes to our community as early as mid-March,” she said to SPIN Life.

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And then the hammer dropped. Enhanced community quarantine closed down Urban Ashram, as well as many other gyms and businesses — all deemed dispensable as the number of COVID-19 cases began its deadly upward climb.

In this time of pandemic, Holopainen credits the studio’s close, tight-knit community for keeping the bonds strong, even outside the four walls of the studio.

“Because of the strong ties our team have with our student base, we were able to shift our loyal students to our virtual platform seamlessly,” she said.

She continued: “Members of our front line staff have been with us for at least three to five years. So they know our students well, and we have a very active social media and newsletter campaign that has allowed us to reach out to as many members as we can to bring them together.”

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The virtual world is nothing new to Maricar. She and her husband Lasse — a Finnish-Filipino who grew up in Cebu — founded Urban Ashram back in 2011, but moved to New Zealand in 2017 in search of better opportunities. However, they still run the studio remotely; a challenging task that, nevertheless, prepared the studio for what was to come.

“[We had] to make the business as automated as possible: reports, transactions, finance and accounting and operations,” she said, “and yet keep the human connection by ensuring that we made the digital communication as personal as possible.”

They now offer three to four online sessions a day. By April 15, Urban Ashram was confident enough in its offerings that it began to offer paid classes by April 15.

Maricar said, “We continue to keep our staff doing the same work online that they did in the studios — welcoming the students in class, taking attendance, answering their questions, and just checking in on them.”

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In these classes, trainers and instructors are still paid the same, even on an online platform. The studio is also looking into offering corporate and public yoga classes, funded by companies and other large groups.

For the foreseeable future, Holopainen believes that Urban Ashram will continue online.

“We most likely will be one of the last studios to reopen, to ensure that guidelines for the health and safety of our team are all effective,” she admitted to SPIN Life. “As such, we are prepared to stay virtual for the near term.”

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It’s been a difficult, painful 2020 for Urban Ashram. When we asked how the coronavirus has affected the financial side of the business, Holopainen could only answer: “Terribly.”

But she sees hope in a new virtual platform — a new kind of fitness community that transcends the physical. Whether in face-to-face classes or through the glass of a device’s screen, Urban Ashram’s mission will remain the same.

“The new normal is for us to even heighten our programs to help and heal more so now in these extraordinary times,” she said.

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PHOTO: (Left) @urbanashramyoga | Instagram, (Right) Courtesy of Fitness First Philippines
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