Failing to keep gyms open could cripple the nation’s recovery from COVID-19

This winter, access to gyms has never been so important. Statement from Nuffield Health Medical Director, Dr Davina Deniszczyc.

It might once have been true that exercise was a ‘leisure’ activity. But in the time of Covid, gyms are an essential health service, and one that has a huge positive impact on people’s physical and mental health. 

While we support actions taken to slow the spread of the virus, there are serious concerns that the government’s decision yesterday to include gyms within restrictions for potential closure risks harming rather than helping the nation’s recovery. Tier 3 local authorities will now need to consider leisure facilities for restrictions in their local areas, much like they did at the start the national lockdown. 

However, compared to the March lockdown six months ago, the situation is very different. We know that gyms have proven to be incredibly safe; ukactive’s recent figures showed that leisure facilities in England have seen more than 22 million visits since reopening but only a handful of cases of COVID-19 among customers. 

We believe this clearly shows the successes of “Covid-secure” protocols in gyms and leisure facilities that were approved by the Government and SAGE, which have made gyms very safe places to work and to work out. Our members have also told us they’re happy with the measures.  In September, 87% said they had a very good/good experience and 78% would recommend the gym to another person. 

The changing season, too, presents us with a very different circumstance. Not everyone wants to – or even can - exercise outdoors in all weather conditions. But regular exercise has become even more important, not only to improve our resilience for common winter pathogens, such as common colds and flu, but against more serious conditions like heart disease and even possibly COVID-19 itself. In the context of rising waiting lists and the suspension of many routine services for people with long term conditions, keeping everyone fit and healthy as they can be is a vital way to prevent even more people from needing more medical support.

Exercise, as referenced in national guidance, is also crucial for maintaining good mental health, which has seen one of the worst impacts during the pandemic and resulting lockdown. Surveys we conducted at the height of lockdown showed over a third (36%) of people believe their mental health has got worse since the start of the lockdown, which is strongest within the 18 to 24-year age group, with over half (55%) feeling their mental health has worsened. Yet half of this age group (50%) are failing to get more than 2 hours of exercise a week, missing the NHS guidelines of 150 minutes of exercise a week. 

We need to do everything we can to increase exercise rates within this demographic to mitigate a potentially terrible epidemic of increased depression and anxiety. This is especially true in areas facing even tighter restrictions and local lockdowns, where people will be facing loneliness and continued social isolation. 

Our surveys also found that 80% of people working from home in the UK felt it had negatively impacted their mental health, while a quarter said they were finding it difficult to cope with the emotional challenges of isolation. 

Gyms and leisure centres clearly have an essential part to play now and in the future, in increasing the long-term health of the population, both physically and mentally. 

But on top of that, the NHS is also facing a ticking timebomb of recovering COVID-19 patients. Many of whom will be left with lasting physical damage and scarring to their lungs, resulting in difficulty with breathing and mobility. We know this is a huge problem, which is why Nuffield Health recently launched a programme to support the rehabilitation of COVID-19 patients, piloting in Newcastle, Stoke on Trent and Manchester. We want to roll this out across the country at scale, so we can support patients significantly impacted by the virus. But a key part of the rehabilitation will be done in – you’ve guessed it – gyms.

We welcome decisive action from the Government to stop the spread of the virus, but gyms must be kept open to provide a safe and essential health service and help our country begin to recover from the many unforeseen effects of this crisis.

Last updated Tuesday 13 October 2020

First published on Tuesday 13 October 2020