Under guidance issued by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport earlier in the month, indoor gyms were permitted to reopen from Saturday 25th July. Members of the SSN gym in Battle Road were back in there early that morning. The return to a fitness regime that many adults, both men and women, make a central part of their lives couldn’t come soon enough.

That’s not to say that gym owners Joe and Charlotte Barcellona had abandoned their members during lockdown. On the contrary, they provided all with home exercise plans, videos and even diet plans; they also lent out basic equipment – weights, dumb-bells, benches, etc – to those with all-year-round membership contracts. And the attention given to the needs of their members was for the most part generously reciprocated. Only a few cancelled or suspended monthly payments, recognising that the gym could remain closed permanently if they withheld support.

Re-styled gym at SSN
PICTURE: CR Photography

Joe Barcellona acknowledges that the £10,000 small business grant received under the Chancellor’s emergency coronavirus support scheme was also crucial in keeping the business afloat. In fact it enabled him to refresh the premises – once a back yard laundry, now four small rooms tucked away up a metal staircase – which would have been difficult to undertake in normal times. During lockdown he was able to give work to some members to help create a new cardio room, install new lighting and carpeting, re-paint throughout, and repair equipment and mirrors. 

So are they back to normal with an enhanced product? Unfortunately not. Joe’s kickboxing sessions cannot resume. Charlotte’s ladies fitness classes are back on, but must be held either outdoors or with very limited numbers inside. Within the gym, two-metre social distancing requirements are strictly applied, and attendance is having to be strictly limited for all purposes, with only six people able to exercise at any one time. 

Exercise time rationed

The knock-on effect is that exercise time has had to be rationed to one-hour slots that need to be booked in advance. With members on yearly or monthly contracts given priority, it has not been practicable to find space for all-comers at all times.  Overall use is therefore well down on pre-lockdown numbers.

There are also added hygiene costs. No one wears masks – the Sports Council advises against any potential reduction of oxygen intake during vigorous exercise – and members themselves are required to wipe down surfaces of equipment after use. But there is still significant expense in keeping the premises clear of potential infection.

“We have been here for seven years, and I feel like we were just getting somewhere”, says Charlotte.  “Now, if we carry on like this, we can cover outgoings, but not make any profits.” 

Winter should bring more custom, as outdoor alternatives are curtailed. And she and Joe remain optimistic. “Obviously times are hard at the moment, but we will get through this – we had hard times for years when we first opened.”

Indoors at the Fighters Loft

Fighters Loft

A few streets east, the Fighters Loft in Harrow Lane, has been finding a wider range of operation within government guidelines, aided by having garden space immediately outside the gym premises. Once gatherings of six people were permitted outdoors from 1st June, owner Ed Lofts set up fitness classes at two-metre distancing. These classes could be expanded to a maximum of 30 from early July. 

Now, with indoor gyms allowed to reopen, fitness circuits are still being run on Mondays, Wednesdays and Friday evenings, while rearranged exercise ‘stations’ (one user per 100 square feet) are made available in the two rooms inside on Tuesdays and Thursdays for separate groups of children and adults. Elaborate rules of hygiene – queueing outside at a distance, taking your shoes off before you sanitise your hands, etc – have become part of general gym discipline.

No physical contact

Ed’s principal interest, like Joe Barcellona’s, is in kickboxing, and it might be thought hard to pursue that sport, or any martial arts, with no physical contact allowed. But Ed points out that most of the training required is in learning technical moves, in honing agility and flexibility, and in building up physical stamina, all of which can be trained without direct opponents. 

“If you’re a good coach you can improve fighting ability without any contact. Of course ultimately you need someone to fight with, but for the moment I treat the sport more like capoeira, the Brazilian combination of martial arts and dancing.”

While the gym was closed, Ed offered online video classes via Facebook, and is proud of devising a 14-day 45-minutes-per-day challenge which cumulatively reached around 20,000 views. He even received a video message from a previously unknown viewer in Australia who had started to join in the sessions and wanted to thank him. He admits that he lost 80% of his members during the lockdown; but business is gradually coming back, and he says he is still intending to buy bigger premises when he identifies the right site. However long the requirement for social distancing may remain, people need to exercise – many at extreme levels.

The SSN gym is at 409 Battle Road. The Fighters Loft is at the back of Ashdown House on Harrow Lane. Of course many other gyms across Hastings and St Leonards have also reopened.

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