Leisure out of lockdown as gyms and pools reopen across east and south London

The Ability Bow Gym in Tower Hamlets. Pic: Ability Bow Gym

By Caitlin Tilley, Clara Murray, Fiona Holland, Sam Shaw and Clotilde Nogues

Gyms and leisure centres in London have been able to welcome their members back to their facilities since Tier 2 restrictions were implemented on Wednesday. ELL spoke to a range of spaces across our four boroughs to see how they are opening and adapting to a loosening of restrictions.

In Lewisham, 1Life gym opened its doors on Thursday. Mark Penny, Contract Manager from Lewisham’s 1Life branch told ELL: ”We are thrilled to have re-opened our leisure centre.”  

“Following advice and guidance from the government as well as the fitness trade body ukactive, independent scientific advisors, not to mention 1Life’s own vigorous health and safety procedures, 1Life has done all that it can to ensure the safe return of its members, community and staff,” he added. 

“As was the case before the lockdown, members and customers will be asked to book any sessions and attendance in advance, enabling 1Life to monitor and manage capacities and to ensure social distancing is fully adhered to. We are not aware of the status of the other facilities in the area.”

A spokesperson for PureGym Lewisham told ELL: “We know that with home working still prevalent, our inner city sites are less popular but that outer London sites are much busier. We expect this trend to be similar in our Lewisham branch.” 

They have had to continue adhering to safety measures, such as social distancing of two metres, and keeping the number of people in the gym to a maximum of 103. Other measures they are following include “increasing fresh airflow and ventilation per person and increasing hygiene and sanitisation procedures. More recently we have ensured that staff and members wear masks when in our facilities whilst not exercising.”

Neil Randall, Anytime Fitness UK CEO, told ELL: “Clubs have distanced equipment, increased sanitisation stations for members to wipe down equipment, enhanced deep cleaning schedules and improved ventilation. To manage capacity, members are required to pre-book their gym slots in advance using a Gym Reservation System.”

Randall also said: “With Lewisham being a Tier 2 area, group exercise classes are permitted to go ahead as long as social distancing can be adhered to.”

In Tower Hamlets, Ability Bow Gym, a space for supporting those with disabilities or long-term health conditions reopens on December 7. In normal circumstances, the gym would offer personal, one-to-one sessions with their members, and the return to Tier 2 will not allow them to change this.

Reception desk at Ability Bow Gym. Pic: Ability Bow Gym

Victoria Kent, Director of Ability Bow, told ELL: “During COVID-19 we delivered our services on livestream to lessen the effects of lockdown on our gym members’ physical and mental health. In Tier 2 restrictions are lifting but many of our people continue to live in self-isolation because of their vulnerabilities to the serious illness of the virus.”

“The gym is small so we’ve had to remove some pieces of equipment to enable social distancing, and we have been given a lot of thought to how we can further enhance the safety rules laid out by government so that we can be satisfied that we’re as safe as we can be for our older or more vulnerable gym members.”

However, the risk of another change to restrictions in the future does not phase them, Kent said: “We’ve learnt that we can provide safe and meaningful support for our people whatever the restrictions are.”

For Rob Griffin, from Mulberry Sports & Leisure Centre on Richard Street, the main aim for his team is to think forward of ways to increase their community’s active levels.

Griffin said: “Whilst I understand… the ongoing debate about “fairness” in the government restrictions, personally I am looking forward to when this is under control and the narrative moves on to something more positive and how the government, the NHS and all the sports, fitness and leisure providers can work together to help everyone be more active in 2021 and beyond.”

In Hackney, the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park’s London Aquatics Centre and Copper Box Arena, as well as the East Village Better Gym, also opened this week. A spokesperson for the Better gym enterprise said: “We’ve gone to great lengths to ensure a safe environment – including managing restricted capacities with pre-booking, social distancing in centre and enhanced cleaning and sanitization. Customers need to arrive in their masks and kit-ready for their chosen activity, though masks can be removed when exercising.”

They also mentioned how the reopening of sports centres and facilities is important for the mental health of their communities: “We know that taking exercise is key to supporting the nation’s physical and mental health during winter.”

Dan Barber, 41, from Barber’s Gym in Lower Clapton in Hackney, said there has been a clear reduction in customers: “Since the reopening it has been a mixed bag. Some people are really happy to be back, some people a bit more cautious. It looks like everything we expected. Since the reopening, we [have] had far less customers yes.”

At the Anytime Fitness gym in Dalston following safety measures are a big priority with there being a limit of 30 people in the space, a spokesperson told ELL. They said: “there are hand sanitizers all around and everybody is expected to [wipe] down after using equipment. I guess restrictions about the gym this year have been fair. We did everything we could, we followed the government rules, everybody has to deal with it.”

Gym-owners have also been happy to open again in Croydon. MYPTstudio owner and personal trainer Tom Riddick, 37, opened up a second gym location in February, just six weeks before the first lockdown.

Even though Riddick has managed to keep both locations afloat and open after the last two lockdowns, turning a profit has been more difficult. “We’re still only at 10 per cent of our optimum level of membership,” Riddick said. 

As MYPT opened on Wednesday, Riddick opted to go “above and beyond” the safety precautions mandated by the government. He told ELL: “We temperature screen every member as they come in and all our personal trainers, reduced class sizes and the sharing of equipment.”

“Yesterday was a very busy morning, but we’re still well down on where we need to be… we haven’t had a single case of COVID at either location,” Riddick said.

“But we’re also conscious people come to the gym to leave the stress of their everyday life.” Beyond the health benefits of exercise, it’s also important to Riddick that he gives members “that element of escapism. We don’t want to ram these restrictions down our customer’s throats too much.”

Dean Ridgway, the General Manager of the Nuffield Health Croydon, agrees with Riddick: “We’ve been delighted to reopen our doors and continue supporting our members’ fitness and wellbeing journeys.”

The spaces are by no means back to normal though says Ridgway: “We’re still following all the Government guidelines and have social distancing measures in place…this means classes and swim lanes are on a booking only system and we have capacity quotas to protect our staff and members.

“While our capacity is nowhere near pre-COVID levels, it’s a joy to see the centre come to life again.”

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