Gyms and fitness facilities were among the first to shut down in the UAE amid the coronavirus pandemic. It was March 15, and that same day Suhail Ashraf, chief executive and founder of Active Fitness Store, saw his online orders spike from 100 to 600 a day.
"It has been crazy," he tells The National. "We have been working 24 hours for the past month. We are a small company, with five delivery teams, and we had to hire a lot more people to fulfil the orders."
It has been non-stop for his team of 15 since then. Daily orders have stayed at an average of 600, although Ashraf has noted a slight decline in daily figures since Ramadan began, as people begin to shop online at night. He says most of these orders are coming in from Dubai and Abu Dhabi, where they get up to 50 orders a day. Other emirates they deliver to, such as Fujairah and Ras Al Khaimah, are a bit slower.
The fact retail stores and malls have been allowed to reopen does not seem to have made a difference, either. “People prefer online,” Ashraf says. “They don’t want to go out right now, they are scared. We have customers who are regular gym-goers who are not planning to go back to fitness activity centres any time soon.
“They have put a huge investment into their home gyms.”
Ashraf says there is an average cart total of between Dh10,000 and Dh12,000. "People are worried, so they are not just looking for a one-time buy or one small thing. They are researching and fully checking brands."
Dumbbells, kettlebells and spinning bikes are selling out
The thing is, if you are late to the game, stores such as Ashraf's and even the big brands are selling out of products fast.
Most of Active Fitness Store's stock of dumbbells, for example, is gone. While you can find weights of one to two kilograms, 7.5kg through to 12kg sold out within a week of gyms closing. His range of kettlebells is completely gone, while the stock of spinning bikes and rowers are also running low; he has sold at least 450 bikes in the past few weeks.
Ashraf will receive a new shipment by the end of April, but he does not expect the stock to last long.
“When we upload our stock to the website, within one hour at least 10 to 15 orders are there,” he says. “Now we have already sold out our six-month stock [since March 15].”
It’s a similar story across the UAE’s fitness shops. A phone call to The Dubai Mall branch of Go Sport confirmed the retailer was also out of spinning bikes at the time of writing. Dumbbell weights still available spanned 1kg to 6kg, and the maximum weight of kettlebell you might find in-store right now is 12kg.
The stores do have plenty of treadmills, however. Costs range from Dh2,000 to Dh8,000.
Another online retailer, 800Sport.ae, is also running low on dumbbells, and it only has those weighing 15kg to 18kg. The supply of kettlebells is a bit better, with options from 4.5kg to 20kg still available, a toll-free hotline representative confirmed. Both new and refurbished spinning bikes were also up for grabs, and the retailer will fully update its stock by next week.
On more generalist websites, such as Noon.com, these items are in short supply, too. Dumbbells from 1kg to 6kg were available at the time of writing, but no kettlebells were listed at all.
More options are now available on Amazon.ae, although prices vary wildly depending on the seller.
Supply cannot meet demand
While Ashraf, who brings in products from China, has been trying to keep his stock as up-to-date as possible, production supply is also drying up. “The whole world has a demand – it’s not just in the UAE,” he says. “China had a problem in December to January [with the pandemic], so production was not there. So whatever stock we are getting is in limited quantity and by the time it comes it’s already sold out.”
He does not expect there to be much stock left in the market until at least July or even as late as September. “Whatever stock is coming will be sold within one month’s time.”
That is why some of the UAE’s commercial factories are turning to fitness equipment production, Ashraf says. “There is a huge demand – so that production should happen here. I know people in the metal industries who have asked me about our dumbbell orders.
"The industry in this outbreak has improved a lot for the home fitness category," he says. Ashraf also believes this retail boom might go on for another couple of years.
Even gym owners, who have had to get creative with how they make money amid the shutdowns, have got in on the action. NRG Fitness in Dubai Marina and GFX in Business Bay, for example, started renting its equipment early on. This included weight plates, steps and the much-coveted spinning bikes.
What are some safe household alternatives?
Michael Sole, co-founder of The Den DXB in Motor City, which is offering a fitness on-demand service that incorporates household items into workouts, says there are still some suppliers that are providing items such as structural rigs, squat racks and pull-up bars at reasonable prices, including Liftdex.
However, he also offers some advice for people who may have trouble accessing the equipment they want, or who simply do not want to spend the money.
"Given the current drought with gym equipment, it can get very demotivating to have to try and recreate your usual gym environment within your home," he tells The National. "And, for a lot of people, having the creativity to bench press your flower pot or do pull-ups on your door just isn't them – and can be very unsafe."
Sole says there are some safe household alternatives we can work into our workouts in place of gym equipment, however.
For a start, a backpack with water bottles inside. “This wonderful compact item can be used as a great alternative for a kettlebell, sandbag and even a weight vest.”
He has devised a simple workout to do while wearing the item: every minute on the minute, for 20 minutes, do 20 to 30 squats, 10 to 15 push-ups, 16 to 20 reverse lunges and a 100 to 200-metre run.
You could also try using a pillow or towel in your routines, he suggests. “Just like you would with a ball slam, or a similar movement using a ski-erg, pick up your pillow or towel and slam it as hard as you can to the ground.”
A workout he has programmed into The Den DXB On Demand service goes as follows: 40 slams; 20 burpees while jumping over the pillow; 30 slams; 20 burpees while jumping over the pillow; 20 slams; 20 burpees while jumping over the pillow; 10 slams; 20 burpees while jumping over the pillow.
Finally, he advises using water bottles. “Although I should not be condoning the use of plastic, I suppose you could see this as a recycling exercise in itself. As we know, water is one gram per one millilitre. Using this simple calculation, and then adjusting your 500ml (one kilogram) right up to the 5 gallon (18.9kg) bottles, you can use these everyday items as alternatives for dumbbells and heavy items that you can squat with, press and even jump over.”
For this, he offers a lower body strength workout: do four rounds of 10 weighted tempo squats (taking three seconds to go down), followed by a 30-second rest, then eight weighted tempo split squats for each leg, rest 30 seconds, 16 to 20 alternating weight step-ups to knee height (use a chair, bench or stairs) and then rest for a minute – and repeat.