COMMENTARY, June 17 — Some of us have been waiting for gyms to reopen since what feels like forever. (An exaggeration, naturally, but these days many things feel that way.)

Well, that day finally arrived. This week, gyms are allowed to operate again. Their doors had remained closed since the movement control order (MCO) began on March 18. Three months ago, give or take. So there feels like there is a lot of uncertainty and questions.

But the top question on the minds of many members is simply: To gym or not to gym?

There is still a fear of whether it is safe or not, even with the sanitising procedures (more on these later) in place. Of whether it’s too soon to return.

For some, they’ve been enduring weeks of missed barbell squats and bench presses. For others, the quarantine has forced them to embrace home workouts — who knew we could exercise outside of a gym, eh?

The decision is one each gym member has to make on their own though gym owners are hoping this will be in the affirmative to return.

Frozen memberships during the MCO period meant no revenue with most of the operating costs — rental, manpower, etc. — still present.

I can’t help but observe every detail, everything that has changed and everything that has not. The new normal means new Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). Rather than see it as an inconvenience, who knows — we might like the new way of working out in gyms more than before.

Exercise equipment and stations are sanitised regularly
Exercise equipment and stations are sanitised regularly

Firstly, gym members have to get used to the fact they can’t just saunter up and visit the gym any time they like. Part of the new SOP limits clubs from attaining full capacity. This means you have to make an appointment to get a specific time slot.

This almost certainly means there will be fewer members on the gym floor compared to what we are used to. There will be no stragglers from the previous slots or rather that’s how it ought to be.

My gym allotted 1.5-hour slots of up to 25 people per slot. That meant once that maximum is reached, you’d have to book a different time slot for your workout. The reservation process is easy enough by clicking on a website link but my club manager observed that the older gym members still preferred to call and book.

Upon entering the gym, as with other business outlets nowadays, I scan a QR code to register and have my temperature taken. Given most of us have had some time to get used to this whether to do groceries at the supermarket or visit a café, it’s still quite straightforward.

I am then given a personal hand sanitiser for use — members are instructed to wipe down all gym equipment they use before and after usage. Stay within the demarcated areas when working out at specific machines or stations in order to keep a safe 1-3 metre distance away from others.

Prior to visiting the gym, the club had already informed me I ought to bring my own filled water bottle and own towels. Face mask before and after a workout. Besides the individual hand sanitisers, soap is also provided for hand washing.

Still, there is one new aspect I didn’t anticipate: the gym staff asking me to lift my feet one by one so he could spray and sanitise the soles of my shoes. And then I’m on the gym floor, free to exercise till my allotted time slot is up.

It’s all very well designed and thought out.

Personal hand sanitisers are given out (left) and social distancing at the lockers (right)
Personal hand sanitisers are given out (left) and social distancing at the lockers (right)

The first week will be about reacquainting ourselves with routines, those of us who are sticklers for routines that is. There are enough members who visit gyms to just lepak and hang out. They start conversations with the staff, other members, use some of the machines (or not), then leave. Rinse and repeat. I guess that’s a routine too, after a fashion.

For more fitness-minded members and certainly those who are more time conscious, this just wouldn’t do. One comes to the gym equipped with a plan. Some have booked training sessions with the personal trainers (PTs); others bring their own workout routines, scribbled neatly on notebooks or listed in an app with links to exercise demo videos.

I don’t expect to train even half as hard as before the quarantine. It takes time to allow my body to familiarise itself with the exercises again, to allow muscle memory to kick in. I tell myself: go slow, don’t overdo it.

As always, I remind myself that in the gym that ego is the enemy (to quote Ryan Holiday): lift only as much as I can, safely. There is no one else to impress.

Usually that mantra is repeated in a gym thronging with gym bros huffing and puffing like their lives depended on it. Not so today. The gym is nearly empty: aside from the staff, there are only two other members besides me; neither is using the free weights area.

My club’s cleaner is methodically wiping down all the stations, before continuing with her usual vacuum and mop routine. We chat a bit; she tells me I probably find it much the same since I’ve always had the practice of wiping down machines and benches before and after usage.

It’s oddly disconcerting and comforting at the same time to realise others have been observing you while you’ve been observing them. (Also, to have your obsessive-compulsive cleaning habits registered. Perhaps another reason the gym staff are so happy to see me back.)

Clearly marked workout areas to ensure gym members stay a safe distance from each other
Clearly marked workout areas to ensure gym members stay a safe distance from each other

Everything takes longer but it does keep one more focused on the time one has. Of course, fewer people in the gym at any one time also means one doesn’t have to wait for machines or equipment quite as long. There is always a silver lining.

Let’s see it as a way to become more mindful, to inculcate some time awareness.

It’s a whole new world. That is, if you choose to return to the gym. For me, the answer is definitely to gym — especially since I feel safer here with all the SOPs and social distancing than I honestly do in the shopping malls or supermarkets where many still think nothing of brushing against you or ignoring the marked lines for queueing.

Perhaps it’s a generalisation but it does take a certain type of discipline to pack your gym bag, drive or walk to your club, locate parking if you need to, follow a set plan of progressive overloading to improve your strength, fitness and health.

Gym-going folks, I find, will stick to the rules if you tell them what to do, clearly and politely.

But to each their own. Deciding to hold off for now — to not gym — is a valid option too, especially when we can exercise anywhere if we put our minds to it.

What matters the most, perhaps, might well be to commit to our health and fitness in the first place, however we choose to decide to approach it. So let’s all celebrate that excellent decision.

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