As we approach the three-year anniversary of the pandemic’s start, it is almost hard to believe in a world without the constant fear of COVID-19. But despite the continuing risk from variants and reinfections, life is (sort of) getting back to normal for most people. For many, that includes a return to indoor activities and gyms. Others are content to continue exercising in the comfort of their own homes.
When COVID hit and the gyms were shuttered, Evanston’s Play it Again Sports had lines out the door, according to owner/operator Mike Hamann.
“People wanted dumbbells and more dumbbells,” he said. “We also had a record year in 2020 for outdoor equipment like snowshoes and downhill and cross-country skis.”
These days, Hamann said, people are getting rid of a lot of their home equipment. For example, he said he passed on 10 elliptical machines in one week in September. However, he added, the store is still accepting used steel weights such as barbells and dumbbells.
So, what did Evanstonians do for exercise without access to group fitness and gyms? And what are they doing now?
‘Long walks really kept me sane’
“Pre-COVID, I was really loving Spenga – it’s a combination of spinning, strength training and yoga, which are the three activities that I love the most,” said Patty Barbato. “Then, when the pandemic hit, Spenga had to suspend our memberships, and they didn’t end up reopening [in Evanston] after COVID.”
Barbato, an education and nonprofit consultant, said that for the first month of lockdown she watched Dr. Anthony Fauci and the ticker on CNN as the horror of the pandemic unfolded. All three of her sons were home from school. They also adopted a dog.
“I don’t think any of us knew quite what to do,” Barbato admitted. “I ended up eating and drinking my way through COVID.” She added that the one thing that saved her mental and physical health is that she would go on long, sometimes eight-mile walks, even during the winter.
“I remember when we were all wearing masks even when walking alone outdoors. And people would see you coming and carve a path to stay 20 feet away from you,” she said. “But I listened to podcasts and tried to meditate during those walks. COVID was a scary time, and those long walks really kept me sane.”
When the gyms reopened, Barbato joined CycleBar in downtown Evanston and she said it was a great place to be after all those miles walking alone or with a friend throughout the pandemic. She said she likes the efficiency of biking vs. walking, and she set and achieved a personal goal to do 200 rides in 365 days.
“I had friends who could do workout classes online in front of their laptop, but that never worked for me,” she said. “I need to be around other people – they energize and motivate me.”
‘Boxing was the perfect exercise’
Chuck Teeter hadn’t belonged to a gym, but when the pandemic hit, he invested in additional at-home exercise equipment. He also started boxing.
“I bought a heavy bag, boxing gloves, jump ropes and hand weights for shadow boxing, and did lots of high-Intensity Interval training at home in my basement,” Teeter said. “Boxing is a perfect sport with limited space and time, and it gets you in excellent shape. Some pundits rate boxers as the world’s fittest athletes. Thus, boxing was the perfect exercise for COVID when you can’t get out to a gym.”
Now that things are opening up again, Teeter, a marketing consultant for a law firm, said he’s eager to join a gym so he can get back into the pool.
“Exercise was particularly important to me as a stress release during COVID as well as for other personal reasons,” he said. “So, despite limitations introduced by the pandemic, I may have been in some of the best shape of my life.” He added, “The double bonus is that exercise increases your immunity. Couple that with a healthy diet and you are less likely to get COVID, and if you do, more likely it will be less serious and shorter duration. A win-win for sure.”
Back at the Y, wearing a mask
Parth Joshi was a frequent visitor to the McGaw YMCA to use the fitness center and the indoor track when it was too cold to run outside. While homebound, Joshi invested in home workout equipment, including a pull-up bar and dip bars.
“It is so freaking hard to do a pull-up, which is amazing because the human body is capable of so much more than your brain allows for, but we forget that we can do that,” Joshi said. “I wanted to regain that baby strength [because babies do all sorts of gymnastics without thinking about it], but it took me the better part of a year to get the grip strength and back/shoulder strength needed to do them effectively.”
Post-COVID, Joshi has re-joined the Y and wears his mask at the gym. He says the Y has been good about spacing people out and providing personal protective equipment.
Joshi, an executive assistant at Northwestern University, has no plans to get rid of his home weights, for when his schedule gets hectic or the gym isn’t an option.
“There are advantages and privilege everywhere,” he said. “If you don’t have a gym membership, you have a body. If you don’t have a treadmill, you have a neighborhood. Take advantage of these gifts while you can!”
Kim DeRaedt, member experience director at the McGaw YMCA, said that as the pandemic wanes, the Y is seeing more members feel comfortable in indoor group classes.
“With smaller capacities for classes to best uphold safety and comfort, our group fitness programming provides the perfect blend of group motivation and energy while still maintaining a cautious nature with COVID,” she said.
She added that most members are very accepting of each other’s mask preferences and estimated that roughly half of the members have kept wearing masks.
“This percentage varies by setting,” DeRaedt said. “For example, a higher percentage of members mask in group fitness classes as opposed to fitness center settings where social distancing is easier to maintain.”
Inspired by others at the gym
Michael Deas had been splitting his time between the gym at Governor’s State University and his home gym in Evanston. When the pandemic eliminated both those options, he did at-home isometric exercises such as push-ups, planks, weightlifting, etc. In that first summer, he biked the trails, ran wind sprints and hit golf balls at the driving range, among other things. For Deas, COVID was a sort of wake-up call that inspired him to make big changes.
“While shut in, I reached 205 pounds, which isn’t a lot for my 6-foot-2 frame,” Deas said. “However, I felt like I was running on my kneecaps whenever I jogged or sprinted. Worse yet, I developed a gut. So I decided to intensify my workouts and adjust my diet, eliminating all processed foods and sweets. As a result, I lost 40 pounds and dropped three waist sizes, from 35 to a 32, within three months.”
Deas, an associate professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, was eager to return to the gym because, he said, the older and younger guys help inspire him. He added that the switched to a gym closer to home when things opened back up.
“These guys are in better shape than I am from the standpoint of stamina and muscularity – and I don’t consider myself a slouch by any stretch of the imagination,” he said. “Those who are in their early to late 60s, they still compete in basketball tournaments, swim, weight lift, among other activities.”
And it’s not just the guys who are impressive, Deas added.
“One time, I forgot to remove 50 pounds from an abdominal crunch machine,” he recalled. “Well, I noticed that a woman about 5 foot 5 inches, 135 pounds was preparing to use the equipment. Being the gentleman that I am, I apologized and offered to remove the weights.
“She responded, ‘Thanks, that’s OK. I’m good.’ She then proceeded to add additional plates.”