Australia's gym owners say they need to stay open to ease the mental health impacts of coronavirus

As Australia grapples with a rise in coronavirus cases and businesses are forced to shut, gym owners are lobbying the government to stay open to help improve the mental wellbeing of their clients.

Billy Kokkinis

Billy Kokkinis wants the government to reconsider its decision to close gyms. Source: Adrian Arciuli/SBS News

The peak industry body that represents gyms and fitness centres in Australia is lobbying federal and state governments to consider the sector as an 'essential service'. 

Indoor gyms and fitness centres across the country were forced to close last Monday as the country deals with the coronavirus pandemic.

Outdoor training, including boot camps and personal training were limited to a maximum of 10 people under the federal government’s guidelines, before being stripped back to just two people on Sunday night in new measures announced by Prime Minister Scott Morrison

For gym owners like Billy Kokkinis, who owns City Gym in Sydney, it has caused frustration.

“I don't understand how they are allowing boot camps outside and I've got 1,800 square metres of space,” Mr Kokkinis told SBS News when boot camps were still allowing 10 participants. 

“I can still make it work and keep everyone relatively safe and that's what we are not understanding.”

“I think there's a little bit of a contradiction there, to be honest with you.” 

On an average day, more than 600 of Kokkinis’s 2,000 members train at his gym in Sydney’s CBD. 

"From a mental health aspect, it's been a disaster,” Kokkinis said.

“We've had people knocking on the doors wanting to come in and train and unfortunately we've had to refuse them entry.”

 “I don’t think the government understands how badly, mentally, it’s affected the community.”

A woman running near an empty Bronte Beach in Sydney on Saturday.
Source: AAP

The Federal Government closed Australia's gyms and indoor sports venues last week, along with bars and restaurants, to help contain the spread of COVID-19 in places that people gather.

"Community and recreation centres, health clubs, fitness centres, yoga, barre … and spin facilities, saunas, bathhouses, wellness centres,” would all close, Mr Morrison said.

Fitness Australia, the peak industry body for the sector, says four million Australians are members of gyms.

Its CEO Barrie Elvish has made the case that the health benefits of exercise are essential to help people deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Health experts tell us that moderate exercise is critical in building an individual’s immune function and we would hate to think that people are losing that exercise routine out of their lives,” Mr Elvish said.

“At the moment, the world is in complete upheaval and many people look to their exercise routine every day as an anchor in the rest of their day as they are coping with all the other changes taking place."

Classes move online

Elsewhere in the industry, workout sessions have been transferred online so people can exercise at home.

Personal trainers and professionals are having to adapt to the new regulations.

Personal trainer Melinda Theore says people need to get creative with how they exercise.
Source: Adrian Arciuli/SBS News

Paul Haslam trains a number of Australia's elite bodybuilders and says there will be some benefits for his clients.

"It’s going to have a small impact on their physique, but in some ways it might be good for them to have a bit of a break from the heavy weights,” Mr Haslam said.

“Everyone is looking at maintaining their fitness and strength levels and this will end sooner rather than later."

With the restrictions in place indefinitely, weightlifters and trainers who rely on specific heavy equipment, face a different challenge.

Sydney-based personal trainer Melinda Theore has urged people to embrace the change.

"It’s just time to get creative,” she said.

“We really need to snap out of that ‘I can’t go to the gym, there’s nothing left for me to do’.”

“It’s about changing the mindset and finding those other options.”

SBS News contacted representatives for Minister for Health Greg Hunt and Minister for Youth and Sport Richard Colbeck for their response to the calls for gyms to remain open and did not receive a reply. 

On Sunday, the Federal Government announced it is spending an extra $1.1 billion to expand a range of services including mental health support.

A new dedicated coronavirus wellbeing support line will be set up by BeyondBlue, funded with $10 million from the federal government and $5 million from Medibank.

"As we battle coronavirus on both the health and economic fronts with significant support packages in place and more to come, I am very aware many Australians are understandably anxious, stressed and fearful about the impacts of coronavirus and what it brings," Mr Morrison said. 

"We will get through this crisis by staying together, by supporting each other and ensuring that no Australian, even though we have to be isolated, should have to go through this alone."

Information on looking after your mental health during the coronavirus outbreak is available at beyondblue.org.au

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others and gatherings are limited to two people unless you are with your family or household. 

If you believe you may have contracted the virus, call your doctor (don’t visit) or contact the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080. If you are struggling to breathe or experiencing a medical emergency, call 000.

SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments. News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus


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Published 30 March 2020 at 6:13am
By Adrian Arciuli