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A Heavy Lift For The Fitness World As Home Workouts Replace The Gym

Capital YTri triathlon team member Kevin Irish of Washington, D.C., practices his swim stroke using a makeshift resistance band improvised from a pair of stockings.
Courtesy of Lauren Anneberg
Capital YTri triathlon team member Kevin Irish of Washington, D.C., practices his swim stroke using a makeshift resistance band improvised from a pair of stockings.

Some runners are are still jogging outside, while others are posting joke videos about sprinting in place on soapy floors. Weightlifters are filling bags with canned goods and shoulder-pressing milk jugs. But what's a swimmer to do?

"Yeah, it's difficult. They call them dryland exercises," says Lauren Anneberg, a volunteer coach at the Capital YTri triathlon team in Washington, D.C.

Think: pulling on an elastic band to simulate a swim stroke — activating the same muscles as in water, except "you're just standing in your living room with a band in your hand."

Lots of people, workout enthusiasts or not, have been looking for such workarounds as they yearn for physical activity while cooped up at home during the coronavirus pandemic.

"I've never worked out with my family before," says Umair Haseeb, a teacher in Chicago, who has found himself building a makeshift gym in his parents' basement. Suddenly, for an hour a day, he's doing single-leg squats right next to mom and dad on a treadmill and his little brother lifting weights.

"The fact that we're all in the same room, sharing an experience ... and after that, we cook up a meal and have a post-workout meal as a family, something that we never got to do before," he says. "Those are sort of special moments."

Meanwhile, gym owners and fitness instructors, with their physical spaces shuttered, are doing tricky math: whether to offer their hard-earned skills on the Internet for free.

"Without your ongoing support as a member, the Y may cease to exist," read a recent email from Angie Reese-Hawkins, president of the YMCA in Washington, where Anneberg's team trains.

Because of the coronavirus shutdowns, gyms and fitness studios are facing the same challenges as many other businesses around the country: forced to lay off employees, pleading for leniency on rent or insurance payments coming due.

"It feels interminable," says Anne Mahlum, CEO of the fitness chain Solidcore, which had to let go of 98% staff and has to negotiate with dozens of landlords.

Many companies like hers are counting on loyal regulars to continue paying for classes, just virtually. But the backdrop to this is a flood of free content: YouTubers, Instagrammers and even pricey fitness apps like Peloton looking to boost their following while also helping people through a difficult time.

Online workouts are of course nothing new. And they're much-appreciated by the self-isolating nation. But the math is complicated for instructors who until very recently relied on paid sessions as their income.

"This is work for me, this is what I studied, this is what I do," says Jaime Andrews, a yoga and fitness instructor just outside Boston, who had to give up on a brand-new studio because of the pandemic. "If so many people do it for free, I just worry that it's going to be hard to bring the value back. ... And the value of [free] is zero."

Some gyms are renting out workout gear as stores have been running out of free weights, yoga mats and other home equipment. And coaches are getting creative to keep their clients on track of their fitness goals.

"You're going to need a broom and a towel," Philadelphia trainer Katie Gould instructed one of her clients on a recent virtual group class.

Right before the pandemic forced Gould to close her training studio KG Strong, she'd spent hundreds of dollars on alcohol, disinfecting wipes and other sanitizing supplies. And now something else weighs on her mind.

"We are an industry of high-fives and hugs and sharing equipment. ... If this is a year of not touching other people, the fitness industry is in trouble," Gould says.

"It sounds kinda silly — but high-fives are a big part of finishing something together as a group. It such a funny thing to think that maybe isn't going to be cool for a while."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.