Lifestyle: Be fit, carefully, Good advice

5 Critical Fitness Facility Elements that Require Planning and Consideration

We knew it would come, eventually. We knew that we’d reach a point where the rhetoric would turn towards opening up instead of closing down. It seems as though we’ve come to that point, but are we ready?

Financially, yes, we’re all desperately ready to reopen. Functionally however, there are five critical issues that every facility needs to address for themselves over the next few weeks to welcome people safely back through currently-closed fitness facility doors.

1. Cleaning and Disinfecting

The biggest concern for fitness facilities is cleanliness, to make the environment safe and as non-transmissive as possible. The CDC has released a complete set of general guidelines, containing most of what has been the topic of news reports for the past several weeks. Hand washing is vital, disinfecting equipment and surfaces is too, wearing protective masks and gloves, and many more tips are widely shared, though no one method has been proven fail-safe.

Professional cleaning services are starting to advertise their packages so that facilities can be disinfected and sanitized prior to reopening, though reception has been tepid as exact dates are, as yet, unknown. For facilities that don’t have in-house staff to handle the job, professional cleaning services might be the best option but many can be pricey and untested. It’s best to use a trusted referral from an established vendor, and still beware of promises from cleaning vendors that suggest long-term anti-virus techniques. With so many COVID questions unanswered, there is no magic elixir that’s been proven effective against this particular threat. Some solicitations are suggesting anti-virus surface treatments or even antimicrobial paint additives as a potential solution for long term virus resistance, but none are proven effective against COVID-19 at this point.

A reliable, recommended set of sanitizing services should include moving the cardio equipment to clean under and around those pieces of equipment that are most often touched (and sweated on), with full attention given to disinfecting the floor. The floor is the one piece of equipment that every single person who enters the facility “touches”, so that’s a disinfecting “must”. All free weights, bars, bands, balls, mats and accessories should be thoroughly sanitized as well as entry point doors and surfaces.

As far as cleaning products are concerned, the CDC has something called “List N” which is a 15-page long document of chemicals approved as effective against COVID-19. The list includes brain-busting ingredients like “dedecylbenzenesulfonic acid” and “quarternary ammonium” among thousands of others. Most are dilutable solvents – which can be good for deep cleaning in trained hands, but not for everyday use.  Many cleaners can do irreparable harm to fitness equipment if used improperly, so that’s another consideration when you’re planning to sanitize your facility and everything inside it.

The most transmissive pieces of concern are made of porous materials (i.e. foam, fabric, etc.), where viral droplets and molecules can easily find a home. As a caution, some facilities are considering air spray systems to dispense disinfectant, but you’ll want to be wary of how the chemicals used will impact skin-contact for employees and patrons, and any damage that might be caused to equipment.

Ongoing Sanitation Practices

Once you deep clean your facility, how do you keep it safe long term? As mentioned earlier, there’s no single answer, though behavior and social distancing seem to be the largest contributor to viral victory. Personal sanitation practices like hand washing and equipment disinfecting need to be not only encouraged but mandated. The days of using a communal spray bottle and paper towels to wipe down treadmills after a workout are over.

“We’re re-thinking fitness hygiene and what it takes to keep people, equipment and the whole environment safe,” says Ryan Meier, president of Fitguard, who had to discontinue online purchases of its Fitness Hand & Surface Wipes to prevent hoarding. “No-touch wipes dispensers are thought of as the best option for daily use to sanitize equipment between uses, but facilities need to dramatically increase the availability of wipes and dispensers. That’s a need that we’re working to meet right now, as facilities start to prepare to reopen.” 2XL’s Gymwipes has five leading products which have demonstrated effectiveness against viruses similar to 2019 Coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2), and they’re experiencing the same high demand concerns as pallet-loads of wipes are being shipped all across the country.

Advanced Exercise has an established relationship with both providers, and is adding additional manufacturers as their products are proven against COVID-19.  Meier’s team at Fitguard is working directly with Advanced Exercise to supply their customers with Fitguard wipes and dispensers, using special customer codes specifically for Advanced Exercise accounts.

Fitguard’s wipes use a tested antimicrobial called Benzalkonium Chloride, which is a superior disinfectant that is also ski-safe and equipment-safe, though Meier is planning for more. “Our current wipes have what you need as far as disinfectant properties, but we are taking steps today to increase the disinfectant properties in these wipes knowing that they’ll be a tool to keep fitness centers and visitors safe.”  

As COVID-19 pervades every community, there’s massive demand for anti-bacterial anything right now, and Meier’s company is feeling the pinch, but they’ve taken unique steps to ration out their products so that they maintain necessary inventory levels. Discontinuing online sales was one such move. “We’re adding wipes to our existing stock as fast as we can, and we’re continuing to fill orders by limiting our current customers to current consumption levels only, no stockpiling allowed,” adds Meier. “We could have sold out completely at three times the going rate, but we wouldn’t have anything left to fulfill customer needs across the weeks and months that it’s now taking to get new products in.” That’s where relationships with distributors like Advanced Exercise come in, so that companies like Fitguard, 2XL Gymwipes and others can identify and prioritize the needs of current customers before market demand changes the picture.

The supply chain bottleneck has been an issue across the board, as the materials to manufacturer high-quality antibacterial fitness wipes comes from the same region in China that also makes masks, and resources have been necessarily diverted to emergency PPE production. It’s a near-guarantee that manufacturers will start looking to regionalize the supply chain in future, but that’s not a quick fix.

As facilities look to put sanitation wipe stations throughout common areas, and try to anticipate signage that will be necessary to encourage compliance with personal sanitation procedures, there remain many unanswered questions on how behavior needs to change to keep people safe, and facilities open.

“Managers and owners are definitely looking for ways to let their customers know that it’s clean and safe for them to come back,” comments Heather Doane, a fitness design consultant for Advanced Exercise in Las Vegas, one of the most notable markets affected by the facility shutdown. The conversations and planning sessions continue, as teams are considering wipeable covers for electronics or screens, offering single-use gloves at the door (that can be laundered daily or thrown away), increasing sanitation stations and other options that limit the transmission possibilities. That also includes on-site equipment and sanitizing products that are necessary to keep facilities healthy day-to-day, and the training for employees who have to handle the chemicals and equipment to do exactly that.

2. Layout Changes

Over the past 30 days, we’ve all learned that being in close proximity of someone else is dangerous, potentially to a life-threatening degree. Whether you believe that social distancing helps or not, it’s what the entire population is being taught, and to feel safe in any facility requires a safe amount of space surrounding any individual at all times. The practice of social distancing will likely require changes to the layout of your fitness facility, as the spacing for any piece of equipment needs to be rethought. Packed group exercise classes may be a thing of the past as numbers of participants may need to be limited. Cardio machines may need some extra inches to keep exercisers at safe margins from each other.

In the short term, that might mean blocking off, unplugging or putting safety locks on certain pieces of equipment to ensure that visitors can’t use them. Long term, it will likely mean a reconfiguration of the entire space. “One of my clients is considering creating a second space so that they can keep their equipment, but have more space for people to distance as they work out,” added Doane. “We’re all sensitive to the new environment where physical closeness is a concern, so we’re looking at creating spaces for more individualized fitness experiences.” Products like The Mirror and Echelon’s Reflect are seeing a surge of interest from commercial facilities, who are now looking at how to create small-space experiences that are considered safer.

The antithesis of many of the efforts that the fitness industry has encouraged up until this point, classes of all kinds may need to be capped, with maximum capacity limits and marked-off spaces for individual participation. It’s plausible that a limit will be needed for the number of people that can use the freeweight area at the same time. How will weightlifting distances be enforced? How will personal training sessions work? There are countless unknowns.

3. Consider Outdoor Options

With more spacing issues happening indoors, facilities are taking an even more serious look at outdoor options where spacing isn’t as constrained. With underutilized rec fields and tennis courts, or unused parking lots, fitness areas can be quickly created and just as quickly dismantled when activities are over. 

The open air of the outdoors is a natural disbursement, so viral transmission is a lesser concern, though it’s still a necessary consideration. Equipment that’s exposed to the elements is usually more impervious to contagions and likewise easier to clean and disinfect. With outdoor equipment there are no electronics to be sensitive to chemicals, and the high-touch areas are minimal (since there are naturally less of them). You can really put tape lines on the grass or dirt, and individual equipment use might be a factor, but outdoor fitness options from companies like BeaverFit might see more critical consideration as the COVID-19 reaction continues.

4. Equipment Replacement

Like getting the lawn mower out after a few months of winter, checking equipment that hasn’t been regularly used is important before ramping back up to full speed. Life Fitness and other manufacturers are sharing equipment tips that should be considered before public access is allowed, including:

  • Wipe down all the equipment before turning back on
  • Test each unit individually before you reopen
  • Check for any new software releases before use
  • Address any damage caused by moving or storage
  • Replace any batteries that no longer hold a charge

But those aren’t the only considerations to think about. Equipment with porous surfaces should be carefully examined to see if replacement is necessary, or if safer (i.e. individual use) options might be needed. This includes items like fitness or yoga mats, foam rollers, or other pieces that are difficult to disinfect after each use.

By far the largest consideration for germ transmission in any facility is the floor. Some industrial carpets are notorious breeding grounds for bacteria and fungi. With functional fitness on the rise, and now even more so due to the individual nature of the workouts, having a floor that is anti-microbial and easy to clean (which means it can be frequently cleaned) can be a compelling advantage. Luxury woven vinyl products like those offered by bWell Flooring have anti-microbial properties, is easy to power wash since it was originally created to be deck flooring for yachts, and it has both indoor and outdoor uses. There are also some select, anti-microbial carpet tile options, if carpet is a must – but prepare to pay a premium. Safety, cleanliness and anti-bacterial options are sought-after requirements for many communities to feel comfortable returning to their fitness routines.

5. Cost Considerations/Budgeting for Necessities

“The fitness world has to make a shift,” concludes Meier. “All of this is a study on how to adapt.” What do people need to feel safe (and to be safe) returning to beloved fitness facilities? What old programs need to change or close and what new experiences need to be offered? Importantly, what will those changes and adaptations cost?

If deep cleaning and disinfecting programs need to be more frequent, it can be cost-prohibitive to maintain that over time. However, if it is considered a necessity, it has to be budgeted for. The same thing goes for space allocation, creating more individual fitness experiences inside the facility, there’s a sacrifice of numbers. Overall, there’s differing opinions on whether people are missing their social groups so much that they’ll be more group participation out of the house, or whether fear and habit will see some avoiding larger group facilities and staying home more. Either way, many facilities are preparing for smaller number of participants, which means changes in group programs, participant levels, and again, the numbers that underlie it all.

To prepare for reopening in any capacity, especially those listed here, the Advanced Exercise team is here to help. With strong expertise in designing and equipping fitness spaces, we can easily connect to help you reconfigure and rethink the fitness environment that works best for your community and its needs. Advanced Exercise has the vendor connections to get the products that you need in the shortest time possible, and we prioritize safety and health in all that we do.

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