Community Leisure UK ezine
February 2021
Fitness industry fights government's 'baffling' and discriminatory group exercise decision

09 Dec 2020

The fitness sector is mounting a challenge to overturn the government's decision to ban group exercise in tier 3 areas in England, calling the ruling "baffling" and one which "defies belief".

While gyms, health clubs and leisure centres are allowed to remain open under all three tiers of the new COVID-19 alert system, group classes are banned in regions which fall under the highest alert level.

Leading industry bodies ukactive, CIMSPA and EMD UK joined forces to highlight the fact that the COVID-safe protocols for group exercise they have issued are "some of the most stringent and controllable from any business sector in the prevention of the virus" – and this is showing up in the results.

The guidance includes social distancing of at least two metres, ventilation of the studio with fresh (not recirculated) air and rigorous cleaning schedules.

In addition, every group exercise class is led by a qualified fitness professional, trained to ensure that all guidance is followed – which arguably makes group exercise even more safe than individual gym workouts, which are allowed in tier 3.

Other governments seem to have grasped this, as all other countries across Europe – where health clubs are open – group exercise classes are allowed to operate, normally with a maximum capacity quota.

"The decision to ban group exercise in gyms and leisure centres in tier 3 is, frankly, baffling," says CIMSPA chief executive Tara Dillon.

"The sector has worked extremely hard to develop COVID-secure protocols, which have clearly worked when we look at the extremely low levels of infection within indoor facilities.

"Every group exercise class is led by a qualified professional, capable of ensuring that all guidance is followed and providing a safe and enjoyable workout”.

There is also an important public health concern in play.

A recent Lancet study highlighted that women were among the groups to suffer the worst from increased levels of mental distress during the COVID-19 pandemic.

With 78 per cent of group exercise participants being female, the exclusion of classes only compounds a mental health problem that has been exacerbated during the pandemic and could be interpreted as discriminatory to women.

“Gyms and leisure centres provide sanctuaries for health in winter and we must strive to prevent the pandemic worsening our nation’s health inequalities," says Huw Edwards, ukactive CEO.

CIMSPA's Dillon adds: “These classes enable literally millions of people (especially women and older age groups) to exercise in a way that benefits their physical and mental health, in a way they would struggle to achieve through a lone gym session”.

Martin Franklin, Europe CEO of group exercise specialist Les Mills, agrees: "The data is clear and shows that group exercise plays a fundamental part in the nations’ recovery from COVID-19, both physically and mentally.

“The decision to exclude this key activity for the health and wellbeing of the highly qualified and skilled instructors and the passionate and committed class participants defies belief when this context is considered."

In addition, group exercise classes are a crucial revenue generator for the industry – and the primary source of income for many operators, especially those in the boutique segment.

For instructors, some of whom work as freelancers, the ban on classes has had a devastating effect.

“The ban in Tier 3 is preventing tens of thousands of instructors from working, many of whom cannot access any financial support," says Marcus Kingwell, CEO of EMD UK.

"So damage is being done to livelihoods as well as physical and mental wellbeing”.

HCM editor, Liz Terry, said: "My view is that the government has simply taken fright at seeing the word 'group' and has banned group exercise as a result, rather than this being a well-informed and balanced decision.

"If we had called these classes 'medically calibrated, supervised lung health sessions' – which is effectively what they are – I'm convinced no such ban would be in place.

"As a result, the industry needs to stress the fact that classes are safe, devised according to the latest exercise science, supervised by trained and qualified professionals and that they support the mental and physical health of hundreds of thousands of people every day.

"We urge the government to reconsider this ban and also for ministers and decision-makers to go along and try out a group exercise class sometime soon, so they truly appreciate and understand the benefits and value."

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