What Going Back To The Gym Is Actually Like Right Now

"The weirdest thing is how normal it all feels.”

Originally Published: 
A woman works out with a trainer, both wearing masks. Returning to the gym during COVID feels weirdl...
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Your gym's been open for a few weeks now, but you and your friends still haven't gone. Sure, you got the email about the COVID safety measures your club is taking, but you're still hesitant because you don't know what it's actually like to go back to the gym right now.

"It seems people are nervous and excited at the beginning of coming back," says Donna Walker, a certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor from Chicago. It makes sense, she says, because when you've missed something for so long and come back to find it so different, it can come with mixed emotions and experiences.

"I’m located in Chicago, where there are still lots of restrictions in place due to the pandemic," says David Robertson, a group fitness instructor for Chicago Athletic Clubs. He also does his own lifting there as a member, and has felt safe going back to the gym to work and train.

Although a survey by online broker TD Ameritrade found that 59% of Americans don't plan to go back to the gym after COVID, CNBC reported, Robertson isn't the only one who feels good about going back. "I felt safe returning to work because of the low case numbers we had and the encouragement from our local and state government that it was safe," says Peterson Wellford, a lead instructor for CycleBar in Memphis. "We were lucky that the state of Tennessee put gyms in phase 1 for the reopening plan and we have been successfully open since May 8th." Maybe local infection rates are low enough for you to feel safe gymming again, too – but what does going back actually feel like?

Why People Are Returning To The Gym During A Pandemic

Walker went back to work at the gym mostly because she missed it, and is grateful that the gyms she works at seem to be following safety protocols well enough. But given that workout industry staples like 24 Hour Fitness, New York Sports Club, and Gold's Gym have all filed for bankruptcy during the pandemic, personal trainers may feel financial pressure to go back even if they're uncomfortable with possible COVID exposure.

"I did face some financial worry through quarantine and being closed for nine weeks," Wellford says. "However, my financial situation was not why I returned to work." He adds that he was glad to come back, even if there were "more hoops to jump through" in terms of safety protocols.

Among members who feel comfortable gymming again, there is an eagerness to get back to old routines and community. "It was really a decision about my mental health," says Les, 31, who started going back to her local gym in Columbus, Ohio, in September. "My girlfriend and I had a lot of long conversations about physical safety versus mental safety, and decided that it's worth it as long as I'm diligent about following guidelines," she tells Bustle. Neither her nor her girlfriend's parents live nearby, and no one in their quarantine pod is immunocompromised, Les says, which helps makes her feel secure about her decision.

What Are New Gym Safety Measures Like?

It's one thing to read about the COVID-related safety precautions gyms are taking — like enforcing mask usage, spacing out equipment, monitoring capacity, or enhanced cleaning protocols — but you might be wondering what it's like to actually navigate those changes. According to Robertson, the "new normal" has become legitimately normal pretty quickly.

"The people who I’ve seen at the gym seem to be going about their workouts pretty normally," Robertson tells Bustle. "Everyone seems comfortable and is doing a great job adhering to health and safety protocols."

"The weirdest thing is how normal it all feels," Les says. "It was awkward the first few days, but I think it was awkward for everyone, trying to navigate new mask, distance, and cleaning etiquette." Still, she says, everyone seemed to sink into their routines fairly quickly. "Everyone's so happy to be back," she says, adding that as a trans girl, she feels a sense of community that's never really been there for her before.

Some physical aspects of pandemic gym life feel better than usual too, Robertson adds. "Honestly, I feel the gym is cleaner than it’s ever been. I know masks may not remain a thing forever as our world hopefully gets back to normal, but I certainly hope some of these cleaning procedures stick around."

The Challenges Of Returning To The Gym During COVID-19

Walker personally feels safe and happy being back in the gym, but it's not always a smooth transition. "Some gym members are frustrated, as booking classes or time slots with trainers can be challenging," Walker tells Bustle. Les has had a similar experience, as a patron: "I've got to be much more strategic in planning my workouts because the equipment is more spaced out, and some of it is completely unavailable."

It's not all purely practical concerns, though. "The culture also feels different — I haven’t been able to put my finger on it — but it is different," Walker says. One thing that feels different, she suggests, might be that not everyone is streaming back into the gym. "Not all clients have come back," she tells Bustle. "Some don’t feel safe because of health conditions."

According to Sara, 26, who started going back to her New York City local gym in mid-September, awareness of those health conditions has a big emotional impact on her back-to-gym life. "When you work out all the time, you get to sort of know the 'regulars' in your gym," she explains. "Since I've gone again, it doesn't escape me that a lot of older regulars, and regulars of color, haven't come back. It really makes you think about how access to health is a real privilege because it's just not safe for so many people to be here."

Sara says she feels those absences during her workouts. "I'm so happy to be able to be back safely, I really am," she tells Bustle. But she worries about making it seem like she thinks the pandemic is over because she's back at the gym. "I kind of want a sign on my forehead that says, 'Yes, the pandemic is serious, but I promise I'm being as safe and respectful as possible even though going to the gym is important for me mentally.'"

What To Know Before You Return To Your Gym

"It's not all about COVID safety," Les says. "You've also got to be patient with yourself and your body as you readjust." Make sure you're not pushing yourself too hard, too fast. "Don't load up the bar and go full tilt right away," Les cautions. "It's tempting to go super hard with barbells and equipment you haven't had in a while, but seriously, you'll injure yourself." Sure enough, Les strained her hamstring her first week back, but she's gotten better at going slowly.

Wellford says that kindness should always be a part of your gym experience, but this is especially true now. "We are all navigating this together with no idea what is going on or what is to come, but we are doing the best we can," he says. "Be mindful of others in your space and remember to clean up behind yourself so that we can make sure everyone using that space is as safe as possible."

Take good care of the people around you, Wellford says. "You never know when the person next to you is returning to the gym for the first time since quarantine," he tells Bustle. "Be mindful of that and that they might be nervous to be back. Help them feel at home in the space they have chosen to be in by respecting space and protocols."


Donna Walker, certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor from Chicago

David Robertson, group fitness instructor for Chicago Athletic Clubs

Peterson Wellford, lead instructor for CycleBar in Memphis

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