Home versus gym workouts: which is better for you?

The sense of community and healthy competition is hard to channel when working out alone

Working out in a group has several communal and emotional benefits, suggest experts. Getty Images
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Will you be heading back to the gym this year? That’s the question the RunRepeat research team asked a sample group of 10,000 people in August. The findings were divisive, showing that while 30 per cent of people have returned to brick-and-mortar fitness studios since lockdowns across various countries lifted, about 50 per cent have either cancelled or considered cancelling their memberships, while 20 per cent remain undecided.

After five years of using the gym conveniently located in the basement of her building, Rosie Seldon, a digital marketer who lives in Abu Dhabi, is reluctant to return as yet, citing pandemic-related restrictions and precautions. Her main concern is the “tight” size and lack of natural light in the gym.

Referring to her own online research, Seldon believes the free-flowing circulation of air and avoiding small spaces are important factors when it comes to decreasing one’s risk of contracting Covid-19.

Omicron and online yoga

The Omicron variant has escalated Seldon’s concerns, who has since bought home gym equipment for herself and her children, and does exercises such as skipping, online yoga and walking on a treadmill she procured secondhand, all while answering emails as she continues to work from home.

Over the past two years, the pandemic has proved that taking care and control of our own health – physical, mental and spiritual – is critical. What has also been revealed is that the wellness industry is an essential business.

When lockdowns first took place globally, health and wellness became homebound, owing to ease of accessibility and a desire to fortify immunity. Like Seldon, hundreds of thousands of people bought home gym equipment and started using digital platforms to tick off their health and wellness requirements. The telehealth sector skyrocketed, as did subscriptions to applications such as BetterHelp and Calm that address mental health. The home turned into both sanctuary and wellness hub, as people began to build their self-care routines.

Arguably, while there are many advantages of readily available digital wellness and fitness platforms, what is being lost as a result is a sense of belonging and community.

The missing social connection

Mina Lee, founder of YogaOne UAE studios in Abu Dhabi, says both yoga and Buddhist traditions use the word “sangha” to signify spiritual community – a group made up of those who share the same values and are sources of support to each other.

“The support and safety of a group with similar mindsets can help us let down defences and, at times, be more honest with ourselves,” says Lee. “A group can inspire us to have more compassion for ourselves as well as each other, and can be a great source of inspiration.”

The notion of community is one of the most important components of society and civilisation at large. It is built from interpersonal relationships, and implies sharing ties and interests and even building identity, all of which cultivate a sense of belonging. Support, unity and solidarity with others stem from being an active part of a community.

Plenty of those who buy home gyms and cardio equipment are gung-ho [about using it] for a while, then will not use it at all
Julie Lewis, founder, Mountain High Middle East

The convenience and accessibility to digital platforms and classes have become the first choice for many fitness seekers, but are such players also doing themselves a disservice when looking at health and wellness holistically?

Julie Lewis, founder of Mountain High Middle East, a company that offers tailor-made expeditions, says the trend to work, live and play at home is creating a situation whereby a social connection is missing, which can lead to depression and anxiety, as well as other emotional issues.

“Home-based training takes more discipline,” says Lewis. “Plenty of those who buy home gyms and cardio equipment are gung-ho [about using it] for a while, then will not use it at all.” This, she says, further adds to issues associated with mental health, when people realise and rue the lack of return on the money spent.

Additionally, Lewis says correcting techniques and mastering the right form are not as accessible via home training, particularly for those who are trying out a different fitness regime or are new to working out. When people are in a physical class, there is also more motivation to get the results they are aiming for.

A matter of hygiene

Perceptions of cleanliness, or lack thereof, is a key reason why many members are reluctant to work out in an indoor space that is not home. According to the Life Fitness Covid-19 Exerciser Survey, conducted at the end of 2020, sanitisation and cleanliness accounted for almost 50 per cent of the sample group in determining whether they would return to the gym, despite various studies (including one by the TRAiN study group from the University of Oslo and Oslo University Hospital) illustrating that fitness facilities are not contributing to the spread of Covid-19.

To ignore the benefits of visiting your local fitness centres is not only doing an injustice to your health, but the people behind these businesses also
Rosie Seldon, Abu Dhabi resident

Supporting this hypothesis, Hisham Awad, managing partner of Arena Fitness, says his team didn’t see many cases of Covid-19 within the gym community, which is now operating nearer to the reduced capacity cap. However, he agrees cleanliness is a concern.

“I’d go as far as saying that nearly all of our members expressed concerns about sanitisation,” says Awad. “Knowing this was a priority for our community, we instigated strict cleaning protocols with approved disinfectants, and all equipment and public areas are wiped down between each use. We also created individual workout boxes throughout the gym, ensuring each member has their own 2-metre by 1.5-metre designated workout space. Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, and we intend to keep these protocols in place for the foreseeable future.”

Despite the efforts that brick-and-mortar fitness studios and businesses are undertaking to attract old and new clients, they are still competing with a 46 per cent increase in downloads of fitness applications, according to a report published by the World Economic Forum.

It may not be all doom and gloom for yoga studios and gyms, however, as it appears that some fitness buffs are moving towards a hybrid approach, with one Les Mills report, compiled even before Covid-19 hit, highlighting that 85 per cent of gym members also exercised at home. Prior to the pandemic, global club membership numbers had shown a decade of year-on-year growth, which suggests digital fitness platforms helped in the growth of the industry at large, allowing organisations to reach new members, rather than cannibalising existing ones.

Even people such as Seldon, who continue to work out at home, admits there are benefits to attending both digital and in-person sessions. “To ignore the benefits of visiting your local fitness centres is not only doing an injustice to your health, but the people behind these businesses also. We need to get back into making good habits, which have been lost along the way.”

Updated: January 01, 2022, 1:38 PM