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Harford County fitness centers see new members in the new year, returning members who want the community feeling of working out in person

The massive indoor “sport court” at The Arena Club in Bel Air, a space that until the COVID-19 pandemic was used for activities such as basketball, is now host to exercise classes and strength training, giving members the space to work out and remain socially distanced.

Instructor Justine Hendricks recently led a small group of women through a session of a Les Mills Bodyflow class, a combination of stretching, yoga, Pilates and tai chi.

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“Think about how good it feels to move,” Hendricks told her 17 students, spaced far apart from each other.

The Arena Club is one of a number of local fitness centers open for indoor exercise — with measures such as mask wearing, social distancing and frequent cleaning and sanitizing of equipment — and they have seen memberships increase in the first weeks of the new year.

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“We are absolutely seeing an uptick recently,” Kathy Rawlings, who owns The Arena Club with her husband, Keith, said of new memberships, although she noted that the increase is “absolutely not” the same as prior years.

“I think people are getting tired of trying to [exercise] on their own, they’re not as motivated,” she said.

Representatives for Planet Fitness, which operates in Aberdeen, Abingdon and Forest Hill, and the Y in Central Maryland, which operates the Ward YMCA in Abingdon, also reported recent increases in membership as people resolve to get fit in the new year, and they seek the camaraderie that comes from exercising with other people.

“We’ve actually seen a nice pickup in January,” said Chip Warner, chief operating officer for the Y in Central Maryland. “We’re seeing our strongest membership sales since the pandemic started.”

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Warner said the pace of sales has, as of the first week of January, about doubled from the fourth quarter of 2020, with people “ready to turn the page to 2021 and try to take control of those things they can take control of.”

“[They feel] like the Y is a good place to do that, where they can work on these physical and mental health aspects of their wellness, and do it in a safe environment,” he said.

Usage of Planet Fitness gyms in Maryland is 25 to 30% higher in January than the last quarter of 2020, according to Josh Gerber, chief marketing officer with Timonium-based Planet Fitness franchise company PF Growth Partners LLC.

Gerber, whose company owns and operates Planet Fitness gyms around the country, said membership is not at the same level this year compared to the same time last year, though, as there has been “substantial member loss from COVID.”

“We are seeing people return to the gym, but just at a slower rate,” he said.

Fitness centers and gyms in Maryland shut down when the pandemic started in March, but they were able to reopen in June after Gov. Larry Hogan lifted restrictions on them, as well as on indoor dining, malls, casinos and outdoor amusement centers.

Gerber stressed that exercise is not a cure for COVID-19, but working out can help people strengthen their immune systems and reduce anxiety, depression and stress.

“It will help make you more resilient,” he said.

While people who are young and healthy have been sickened, hospitalized and died from COVID-19, those with pre-existing health conditions are at much greater risk. Rawlings emphasized how exercise can help reduce “comorbidities” such as cardiac and pulmonary issues, high body-mass index and diabetes.

“These are all things that can be helped and even reversed with proper nutrition and exercise, and I think people are realizing how important it is to be healthy,” she said.

Rawlings cited research indicating that people are not as engaged when exercising at home, such as leaving an online class before it ends or decreasing the duration and intensity of their workouts.

“The new memberships, it’s not what it used to be but it’s getting better, because I think people, they’re missing their gym and they’re starting to realize the importance of exercise,” she said.

Arena Club officials are learning that their members missed the “variety” of working out in person, as well as “the community — they missed their instructors, their trainers,” according to Rawlings.

“With all our protocols in place, we’ve been able to prove that you can exercise safely — being physically apart, being physically distant — but being in a social environment such as a class,” she said.

Member testimonies

The Bodyflow class lasted about an hour; once it ended, students briefly talked with each other before heading out.

Julie Baker, a Bel Air resident and five-year member of The Arena Club, said she “came right back” once the club reopened in June.

“I think they’ve done a really good job, as far as making me feel comfortable and safe here,” she said of club staff.

Melissa Young, also of Bel Air, has been a member for seven to eight years. She noted that she “can’t say enough positive things” about group fitness classes and that she and other students have “all become quite friendly with each other.”

Young also lauded the feelings of “community” and “camaraderie” she has experienced, “especially during COVID.”

“The classes are great for physical [health], but your heart and soul feel good as well,” she said. “It’s priceless — you can’t put a dollar value on what you get here.”

Barbie Dedrich, who noted that she lives a short drive from the club she has been a member of for 14 years, said working out there has “saved my life, mentally and physically, during this pandemic.”

“[I am] just so thankful to be here, to greet my friends and enjoy everything they have to offer,” Dedrich said. “It’s been a life saver.”

New member Luciana Meritzis, of Forest Hill, participated in her second Bodyflow class. She and her husband joined The Arena Club in the new year as they were seeking a place where their 19-month-old son could be with other children.

The Arena Club offers a pre-kindergarten program for children ages 3 to 5, as well as child care while parents exercise, according to the club website and Angela Saccenti, marketing director.

Meritzis said she had been spending a lot of time at home during the pandemic, “to the point that I was feeling very anxious.” She and her husband joined The Arena Club after a friend recommended it.

“We thought we would give it a try and see how it goes, and I feel really safe here,” she said. “It’s very clean, I feel like they are very organized about the COVID [prevention], and this where I feel safe to bring my son.”

Safety protocols

The Arena Club, Planet Fitness and the YMCA all have multiple safety protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

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Saccenti gave a tour to a reporter for The Aegis, showing measures such as having every other piece of exercise equipment turned off and plexiglass shields between each row of equipment.

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“You’ll have no one directly breathing across from you, [or] beside you,” she said.

Other pieces of equipment, such as exercise bikes, treadmills and free weights, have been spread out around The Arena Club’s more than 100,000 square-foot main facility, which includes indoor and outdoor swimming pools that are open for activities such as swim lessons, lap swimming and water exercise classes. People also can work out in a separate building on The Arena Club’s property off of Route 22 near Harford Community College.

“We have so much equipment and space, you can still use whatever equipment you want with safe distancing,” Saccenti said.

Rawlings said club officials reached out to operators of fitness centers around the world before COVID-19 showed up in the U.S. in January of 2020. They were able to take measures including ordering and installing an airPHX filtration system in the facility, as well as purchasing PPE for staff and cleaning equipment such as electrostatic sprayers.

“We were able to get time to be proactive, which was extremely helpful,” she said.

Warner, of the YMCA, said there is an “aggressive regimen of cleaning and disinfection of equipment” at Y facilities.

Equipment has been spaced out or moved to larger spaces in the facilities such as gymnasiums, which also play host to exercise classes. Members and employees must undergo temperature checks and wear masks at all times, even when working out.

Outdoor classes also are available as long as the weather permits — which “some hardy souls” participate in despite the cold weather — and Y officials are looking into methods for members to connect with each other and take classes online, according to Warner.

“We’re trying to make sure we’re providing value to members in ways that are creative, and keep them safe and help them get what they need at this time,” he said.

Members of Planet Fitness must wear masks, equipment has been spaced apart, and staff clean and sanitize the facilities every 20 minutes, according to Gerber.

“It’s our top priority, to keep our members and our employees safe,” he said.

Dr. David Bishai, Harford County’s new health officer, encouraged people to “exercise and to support our local gym-owners by maintaining their memberships.”

“Despite the cold, a lot of people can get the benefits of aerobic exercise outdoors if they are worried that the hygiene and behavioral conformity in their local gym are not adequate,” he wrote in an email.

“The health department has been really impressed so far with most gym owners in the county for becoming educated and working really hard to protect their customers,” Bishai added.

He stressed that “the health department cannot be present in every gym every day to make sure conditions are maintained,” however.

“People have to stay vigilant,” he noted.

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