NEWS
16/10/2020 06:00 BST | Updated 02/11/2020 11:20 GMT

Tier 3 Lockdown Has Taken Away These People's Lifeline – The Local Gym

Restrictions in the Liverpool City Region have shut gyms and leisure centres. But for many they are a vital tool for mental health as well as physical fitness.

“In my opinion, closing gyms isn’t protecting public health. It’s actively harming it.” 

Chelsea Hankin, from Liverpool, isn’t alone in thinking this.

On Wednesday, more than a million people in the region woke up under tough new tier 3 rules imposed by the government to clamp down on spiralling rates of Covid-19.

With the coronavirus alert level at “very high”, household mixing has been largely banned, pubs and bars that do not serve “substantial meals” have been forced to close their doors, and wedding receptions are off the cards. 

But one of the new restrictions has cut particularly deeply for some people in the region – the closure of gyms. 

Despite not being mentioned in the government’s “baseline” set of rules for tier three areas, gyms, sports facilities and leisure centres have been told to close across Liverpool, Halton, Knowsley, Sefton, St Helens and Wirral. 

While ministers have insisted that gyms are only closed in tier 3 areas in consultation with local leaders, the mayor of Liverpool Joe Anderson has insisted he told the government that “gyms are safer than supermarkets”.

Either way, it’s a decision that has sparked a huge backlash among locals. 

More than 140,000 people have signed a petition demanding that gyms in areas with spiking rates of Covid-19 must be allowed to remain open. 

Gov.UK
More than 140,000 people have signed a petition calling for gyms in areas with high levels of Covid-19 to be allowed to remain open

Gyms must not be put into the same category as pubs and restaurants, the petition argues. “Gyms are following strict guidelines and most members are following rules in a sober manner,” it reads.  

“The gyms are a huge benefit for users, not just physically but mentally too.” 

It’s a sentiment shared by thousands of gym-goers in the area looking ahead to what is likely to be a bleak winter dominated by Covid-19 restrictions. 

Georgia Knott, a first year student at the University of Liverpool, has only been in the city for a few weeks.

Like thousands of freshers arriving on campus this autumn, the pandemic – and subsequent restrictions and lockdowns – has made for a difficult start to university life. 

For the 18-year-old, making sure she had access to a gym was one of her top priorities when starting her studies. 

“The first thing I did when I arrived was buy a gym membership,” she said. “For me, the gym is as much a place for mental gain as it is physical gain.” 

Exercise is about leaving behind the stress and anxiety of the outside world, Knott explained. 

Like thousands of students across the country, she has been in self-isolation for the past two weeks. 

David Sacks via Getty Images
Man running on a treadmill 

“The thing that got me through was being able to go back to the gym again – but that privilege was stripped away two days before I was free to return. 

“People may argue that I should go on a run, but as a petite girl from a village in Hertfordshire, the thought of running down unknown streets alone would produce more stress than I would be releasing by exercising in the first place,” she explained. 

Knott added: “Before this lockdown there was a perfect scheme in place at the gym to clean everything and have a certain amount of people in at one time.

“If Primark can stay open, it seems crazy that gyms are being forced to shut.” 

She isn’t alone in her anger. 

“I’m so mad,” said Louise Jeras, an office manager from Halton. On Tuesday night her local gym – which “had worked really hard to make sure everyone was safe” – had to close its doors for the foreseeable future. 

“It sounds dramatic, but the gym keeps me sane,” she said. “I’m so upset and annoyed.

“I’ve been going to the gym for about six years. It has never, ever been a chore. I’m a busy working mum of teenagers, so it really is my happy place.” 

During the UK’s first lockdown in the spring, when gyms across the country were closed, Jeras, 39, found herself in an unhappy cycle of eating and drinking too much and struggling to find the motivation to exercise. 

“I felt guilty, but I couldn’t snap out of it,” she said. “I set my conservatory up as a bit of a gym. I know I’m really lucky to be able to do that, but it’s not the same.”  

Christopher Furlong via Getty Images
People walk through Liverpool city centre ahead of the lockdown closure of bars, gyms and clubs 

With increasingly strict restrictions imposed across the UK in recent weeks, going to the gym has been a rare reason to leave the house for many. 

One gym goer from Runcorn, who asked to remain anonymous, told HuffPost UK: “It feels like I’m going to be at home 24 hours a day from October through to January.”

The man, 35, added: “What am I going to do? In two or three weeks’ time, when I’m bored and lonely and tired and frustrated, I won’t have the gym to turn to.  

“I’ll be turning to the booze, out of total boredom. Is that healthy? No, it’s not.” 

Like many people, he has questioned what proof there is that gyms should be lumped in with bars and pubs. 

“If someone was to turn round to me and say: ‘Here is the hard evidence to correlate gyms with an increase in Covid,’ I would be like: OK, fine. 

“But until someone provides us with the evidence, I just see this as an uninformed knee-jerk reaction by a government that doesn’t have a clue how to handle this.”  

Each week, Public Health England (PHE) logs the places that people who have tested positive for Covid-19 went before they started showing symptoms to try to work out where they were infected. 

If more than two cases are associated with a location, it’s counted as a “common exposure”.

Between October 5 and October 11, gyms accounted for 3% of common exposures, or 175 settings (out of approximately 7,200 gyms in the UK).

They came in behind supermarkets (12.1%), pubs and bars (9.9%), restaurants and cafes (8.5%), secondary schools (5.4%) and primary schools (4.1%). 

However, PHE has admitted that it hasn’t made adjustments for how often a location is visited. That means that locations with more visits are more likely to be identified as common exposures.

Barrie White, a 40-year-old gym-goer and journalist from the Wirral, said there seems to be “no rhyme or reason” to the restrictions.

“It’s largely accepted that Eat Out to Help Out caused a rise in cases, but that is understandable as we went from 0 to 60 in getting people back into work and socialising.

“Yet pubs that serve food, in which yet again there appears to be no standardised view on what that is, can stay open.” 

The past few days have been “really quite hard” while he has been trying to get his head around why gyms have to shut. 

“Genuinely, I have had zero concerns about transmissions there [in the gym] and I have been ultra safe throughout all of this,” White added.

“This morning, I had to train in my garden, which wasn’t fun, and I am one of the fortunate ones who can do that.”

For Chloe Melon, also from the Wirral, it’s baffling that gyms must close while restaurants can remain open.

Supplied.
Chloe Melon says politicians don't understand what gyms represent for 'normal' people 

“I go to the gym four to five times a week and really enjoy going,” she said. “It gets me out of the house for a few hours, and I’ve depended on it a lot more since I’m working from home full-time. 

“Not being able to go to the gym for a few months in the first lockdown had such a negative impact on my mental health.” 

The 23-year old explained: “Going to the gym benefits you physically, but you only see the results after a few weeks or months. However, it benefits your mental health instantly.” 

The government “really don’t understand it”, she said. 

It has emerged in recent weeks that the chancellor Rishi Sunak has a £1,750 top-of-the range Peloton exercise bike at home, while Boris Johnson hired a personal trainer in August after admitting he was “too fat” when he caught coronavirus. 

“Working class people can’t usually afford to have a personal trainer or particular equipment so we can exercise at home,” Chloe said. “Not only that, but gyms are a community.”  

It’s a feeling echoed by 31-year-old Hankin, who started going to the gym 18 months ago. 

“For many, going to the gym provides structure, routine and even a sense of community,” she said. “Households mixing in the gym has been prohibited for a while now.

“But simply seeing familiar faces and sharing greetings can make a massive difference to a person feeling isolated.”  

AleksandarGeorgiev via Getty Images
Man wearing a face mask disinfects gym equipment 

Hankin started going to the gym last year “when I realised that I needed to start actively looking after my health and wellbeing”. 

“The last closure of gyms in lockdown made me realise just how much of a fundamental role it now plays in my life,” she said.

“Being fit and active reduces the risk of developing severe complications related to Covid-19. It also reduces other health issues which in turn reduces the burden on the NHS.” 

The gym plays an important part in maintaining physical and mental wellbeing, she said. 

The government should prioritise keeping open places that allow people to work on these things, Chelsea added. 

It’s an opinion echoed by Louise, who has questioned what ministers are trying to achieve. 

“The messages from the government don’t make sense,” she said. 

“We’ve been told to keep ourselves healthy to help fight against this virus but then they shut the gyms. It just doesn’t make sense.”