Making Fitness Centers Function as Smoothly and Healthily as Possible During COVID-19

College students using gyms and fitness centers tend to be in the age group with the reputation of being the most cavalier about adhering to recommended precautions that prevent the transmission of COVID-19. A gym is typically indoors. Respiration rates rise in these rooms. Lay out all the separate pieces, and you might think operators should be locking their gyms and fitness amenities and throwing away the key. Not so say fitness companies that serve the student housing industry.

“While some colleges suggest students have not taken COVID as seriously as they could have, according to the CDC, healthy people under the age of 25 have a survival rate of 99.98 percent if they test positive for COVID,” says Seth Gordon, CEO of Comm-Fit. “On the flip side, college students have been one of the highest-risk age groups for suicides during the pandemic, with one of four young adults reporting things such as depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts from lack of activity and socialization. Closed fitness facilities enforce inactivity and isolation, which are clearly showing to be negatively impacting this age group. The media has focused its attention on ways to avoid being exposed to COVID and what to do if you get it. We look at health and wellness as being an equally or perhaps more meaningful approach to reduce the likelihood of getting COVID or to prevent it from developing into a severe case.”

Gordon cites a study published in September by the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) that indicates that gyms are safe. From May 1 through Aug. 6, 2020, IHRSA and MXM, a technology company specializing in member tracking within the fitness industry, examined and compared member check-in data or number of gym visits from several fitness facilities — such as Planet Fitness, Anytime Fitness, Life Time and Orangetheory — across the country with self-reported infection rates. After approximately 50 million check-ins over that three-month period, the study found that 0.0023 percent tested positive for COVID-19.

In student housing communities, property staff are implementing safety measures to their fitness centers. “We have made operational changes every step of the way in this ever-changing environment, including reducing capacity and/or closure of common areas per state regulations, as well as taking some equipment down in order to adhere to social distancing guidelines,” says Dale Callison, senior vice president of management services with Core Spaces. “We’ve also increased cleaning of all public and amenity areas and common touchpoints; added hand-sanitizing stations throughout the buildings; implemented cleaning via electrostatic sprayers in common areas; and NanoSeptic, a continually self-cleaning surface, is being applied to doors and buttons.”

An increased focus on sanitation products and practices will continue into the foreseeable future and fitness companies are tailoring their approach to serve that demand. “Our reopening support was crafted with one goal in mind: To help our partners manage the safety guidelines and other key considerations during the process,” says Jason Balzer, director of national accounts with Matrix Fitness. “In May, we did release a secure bottle holder that attaches to a variety of Matrix units, which was developed during the shutdowns with more stringent cleaning protocols in mind.”

Balzer says Matrix also launched a page on its website with support resources for facility owners that cover reopening guidance, group training reactivation considerations and other engagement tools to reach people outside the walls of the fitness center.

Lisa Wild, regional segment manager of multi-unit housing for Life Fitness, says the company quickly pivoted after the onset of shutdowns and provided a reopening toolkit with tips and resources to help gyms safely and successfully reopen.

“The pandemic has also presented opportunities for us to adjust our business to better serve our customers during this time,” she says. “With more people exercising outdoors, we developed the Hammer Strength Outdoor Box to offer operators an all-in-one solution to outdoor performance training.”

Grant Moyer, president of Momentum Fitness Solutions, agrees that now is the time to make the most of outdoor space. “I would make the recommendation to try to integrate more outdoor exercise spaces,” he says. “You could still have your indoor amenity, where you may want to be mindful of the equipment you’re selecting and how it’s designed so that you create a little more flow and space.”

“Previously outdoor spaces have been a little more geared toward yoga,” Moyer continues, “but I think fitness is going the way of functional fitness, including bags and kettle bells and barbells. Those are the perfect types of items to use outside in conjunction with the inside of the center so that there is social distancing and ample air circulation.”

Jessica Vo, Comm-Fit’s vice president of sales, also reports an uptick in interest in outdoor spaces. “We’re definitely quoting and seeing more outdoor fitness,” she says. “This can include stretching areas, equipment that you bring outdoors and then can bring back inside, and, of course, virtual fitness.”

Virtual fitness is cited as one of the easiest and most effective ways to keep the fitness amenity alive and well. Virtual exercise options present an opportunity to blend communal and solitary workouts.

“We’re seeing integrated products whereby you can perform virtual workouts on the equipment or log in through an app and still get a workout in elsewhere that doesn’t require any equipment,” says Gordon.

Wild concurs, saying electronic solutions will underscore successful fitness amenities now and even more so in the future. “Operators should be embracing, adopting and implementing strategic digital solutions into their existing strategy,” she says. “Creating ways that fitness can engage exercisers in their preferred environment, inside and outside of the club, is going to win moving forward.”

Digital fitness tools can include Fitness on Demand or Wellbeats, which can be accompanied by an app that offers students guided exercises to complete in private, without any equipment. Applications such as these, or digital workouts affiliated with specific pieces of equipment, can enable students to engage with the amenity in a way that makes them feel comfortable.

“During these unprecedented times, multi-unit housing developers and property managers are looking to differentiate themselves by having a beautiful fitness center with an interactive or digital component to it,” Wild continues. “People more than ever are craving community and connection, and having a digital component helps people to connect even if they cannot do it in person. We rely on our phones for most everything today, and the fitness center is no different. Having a digital component can help people to interact not only locally, but around the world with interactive challenges, guided workouts and more.”

Balzer joins the chorus of supporting a robust virtual fitness program in today’s environment. “Students want to utilize the amenity package they paid for and they want that convenience of an onsite fitness offering,” he says. “We’ve seen digital options for fitness gaining popularity, so a mix of virtual and onsite programming could be explored to reach and engage students wherever they are.”

For those students who want to continue using the gym in the traditional way, operators are ensuring the spaces are safe. Momentum offers botanical disinfectants and sprayers, while Comm-Fit says it is paying close attention to its flooring line by focusing on products that are easy to clean and disinfect. Overall, fitness companies recommend increasing signage, using a reservation system if necessary, supplying additional hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes, and extra waste baskets to easily dispose of used equipment wipes.

“Student housing managers have done a great job using electrostatic spraying and disinfectant spraying throughout all the amenity spaces, especially in the fitness space,” Moyer says. “Some clients are wondering if they should take out equipment or mark certain pieces off. But we don’t think that’s a good idea. If you have six treadmills and you mark off three, you’re going to have an unusually high workload on the three that remain in use. So now you’ll see repairs increase.”

Balzer also advises keeping the machines that are in service running smoothly. “Performing routine preventive maintenance on your fitness equipment by way of a certified service technician can really be beneficial to protecting that investment,” he says. “Maintained equipment will show less wear and require less service. Your residents will be able to explore your complete offering instead of having to adjust their workout because of missing units that weren’t cared for properly.”

While students tend to need additional guidance on how best to engage with the fitness center, owner-operators are hoping residents will use good judgment about their health and the health of others.

“At some point we have to empower people to make the right decisions for themselves,” says Moyer. “Most people I talk to don’t want to dictate to residents what pieces can be used and what pieces cannot be used, they just want them to learn to self-manage themselves.”

— Lynn Peisner

This article was originally published in the September/October 2020 issue of Student Housing Business magazine.