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Highs and lows of the Covid-19 fitness craze

Isolated at home, many Pakistanis in big cities turned to health and exercise at the peak of the pandemic

By Yusra Salim |
PUBLISHED February 28, 2021

For many, the novel coronavirus has made a ‘normal’ nine-to-five routine obsolete. Instead of spending a better part of their day at work, many professionals are now working from home with, paradoxically enough, a heavier workload than before.

When Pakistan was hit by the pandemic last year, it caught a lot of us off guard. But from those initial days of confusion and not knowing how to react, people gradually started coming to terms with the ‘new normal’ and found ways to adapt. In doing so, some changed their lifestyle drastically for the better while others briefly flirted with fitness only to give it up as things return to how we remember them.

With a drastic reduction in outdoor activities – from work to going shopping, dining and socialising – staying back at home kicked of a frenzy towards looking after one’s health and physical fitness.

Cycling boom and bust

Friends and families trapped at home and looking for a way to accept and enjoy this new slower pace of life began cycling in their neighbourhoods, for instance. The activity not only provided a good way to socialise while maintaining social distance, it enabled people to still get some fresh air and take in outdoor sights without fear of contracting the contagion.

“This is such a common sight in my neighborhood now. It became a regular a hobby for many to form groups and take out their cycles on to the streets between 7pm to midnight and sometimes even after that,” said Syed Salman Ali, a resident of DHA Phase 8 adding that, “Even when I just drive around Abdul Sattar Edhi Avenue, a herd of cyclists can be observed after fajar.”

Ali who himself is an avid rider said that the whole idea of physical fitness and cycling affected him differently. When this trend began, he decided to use it as an opportunity to create a business for himself out of it. He began by bringing in cycles from Quetta and selling them in Karachi. Buying cycles for anywhere between Rs8,000 to Rs10,000, he flipped them for more than double that amount. Once the larger market got wind of this, however, they too capitalised on the boom by raising their prices to Rs17,000 to Rs18,000.

“At the peak, I sold cycles in Karachi for as much as Rs35,000,” Salman said. “As soon as the lockdown lifted, however, these seasonal cyclists snapped out of the craze. I still have 25 bikes which I could never sell after September, when schools opened,” he lamented.

From gyms to home gyms

Like most businesses affected by Covid-19 and associated lockdowns, vendors of sports goods and exercise equipment felt the pinch of the pandemic as well. Luckily for them, revenue did not dry up and they only had to deal with a change in patterns of consumption.

“People began ordering exercise machines and other types of fitness equipment for their homes,” said Shehzad Iqbal, the owner of New Liaquat Sports shop in Karimabad. “Obviously, we lost some business early on, but within a few weeks it picked up again and we vendors moved our sales online, through WhatsApp and Facebook.”

The pandemic also changed the way many Pakistanis, especially in major cities viewed fitness. Partly because they suddenly found themselves with plenty of time and nothing to do, many began investing in their own health.

The most common orders were cycles, helmets, protection kits, bench-press, rods, dumbbells, and treadmills, according to Iqbal. “Basic machines which could be used at home were still in demand while the complicated ones, which require the need of specific techniques and trainers were not very popular,” he explained.

Iqbal’s bestseller over the last four months was badminton rackets. “During the winter, if roamed around Karachi, you could see people playing the sport on their terraces or in their streets,” he said. “This trend is diminishing now to some extent, because of an increase in street time, but we are still enjoying a spike in sales, which means some interest is alive.” According to him, sales of badminton goods in 2020 broke all records of the market in the past five years.

Online classes and personal trainers

As Covid-19 brought the world to a standstill, people who once enjoyed a healthy walk outside found themselves confined with limited means to look after their health. At the same time, health experts clearly extolled the benefits of an active lifestyle in keeping the virus at bay.

“People who are active, exercise regularly, walk daily are considered healthy as compared to people who did not have any such routine to speak of and as such, they were believed to be at lesser risk of being hit too hard by the virus,” said Yasir Akhter, who is a physical trainer at the gym.

He also added that there were suggestions that Covid-19 effects blood flow and causes clotting in veins. “Exercise and having a healthy lifestyle can slow it down and build your immunity up.”

According to Akhter, when everything was closed down initially, people started following health trends and started challenging each other. Many physical trainers also started hashtags on Instagram with jogging and cycling challenges, which motivated a lot of people to start cycling.

“After few weeks of closure of gyms and gatherings we started getting queries and clients started asking for exercises that can be done at home or online sessions. Many clients were inquiring about diet plans, exercises that can help build immunity to fight the pandemic and also which YouTube tutorials are best to follow,” Akhter said, sharing how gym owners and trainers coped with the closure of gyms,

“Many of the clients took help from YouTube tutorials. While some came to us to be fit, most worked at home using online sessions until the lockdown was in place,” the trainer told The Express Tribune. “As soon as restrictions were eased, however, many left mid-progress.”

Since March when the first phase of lockdown had been imposed and everything was closed down, gyms were not allowed to operate. Although gyms still have not been explicitly allowed to operate, they became functional as soon as the government lifted restrictions on other businesses.

Another physical trainer Khushbakhat Zubair Butt who works at Iron box in Lahore shared that when Covid-19 began and the business of gyms was completely halted, they started online classes for their registered clients within a month because they knew that the gyms would not be opening anytime soon neither the world was going to return to normalcy anytime in the near future. The problem, they also realised initially, was that people were extremely afraid of going out because they were afraid of contracting the virus.

With this scenario in front of them, the trainers needed someone to motivate people or at least push them towards the betterment of their health and after struggling for few weeks, a lot of clients that they contacted either set up trainings at their own homes with their trainers, which did still expose the trainers to some limited risk, whereas other clients joined online group zoom classes or one on one private online training sessions.

“Online training is not 100 per cent efficient as the techniques and machinery cannot be taught on video calls and the availability of equipment in a gym environment was a major missing factor too but still some sort of physical activity started,” said Khushbakht.

Furthermore, she added that the whole idea of connecting physical fitness to Covid-19 is people were encouraged to build up their strength and immunity.

Beating the virus

Sharing her experience of contracting coronavirus, Khushbakht recalled that she was training at a park in mid-November last year after the lockdown had been lifted when she began to feel really hot out of nowhere. By the time she reached home, she had high fever, which she initially believed was due to exhaustion. The fever broke after a few days’ rest, but suddenly she developed breathing trouble. “This rang alarm bells for me and I decided to get tested,” Khushbakht said.

She gave a sample at a nearby hospital and went into isolation while waiting for results of her PCR test. As expected, the result showed that she had tested positive for Covid-19. Her lungs had been affected and she was left feeling like she had very little energy. “Coronavirus hit me badly for nearly seven days and weakened my muscles,” she said.

To energise her body, she did everything from taking vitamins, drinking juices, eating good food, taking steam and eating many water fruits. Doing all this helped her gain her strength back, but it still took her a whole month to get back to feeling normal and training again.

During this recovery process, until January she was experiencing difficulty climbing stairs and she was usually left feeling breathless afterwards. Lifting weights like she previously used to do was also tough for her for a while. “Anything easy, like normal walking, used to leave me feeling tired but slowly my body started adapting. After putting myself through a little pain and stress, I was able to resume my old exercise routine,” said the fitness instructor.

How trends vanish

The Covid-19 fitness craze is now seemingly dissipating as quickly as it began. As offices and educational institutes resume normal activity, many of those who took to the streets and parks or their rooftops for fitness are now nowhere to be seen.

“We still have the business shift to more of an online setup from existing gym facilities. On a daily basis, we get thousands of queries and people mostly want easy ways to exercise at home rather than coming to gyms because the fear is still there that germs stay on surfaces for a longer time,” Khushbakht said.

What was never done before was virtual training, which has over the past year become so common. Trainers even took on international clients as part of exercise classes on Zoom. While some trends have changed, loyal clients who wanted to stick to a healthy lifestyle have stayed on. The number of such people continuing to utilise online exercise classes is higher than what they started with in 2020, she added.

It was around six years ago when a swift shift was witnessed in Pakistan and people began to take their health and lifestyle more seriously. People began to more consciously care of what they eat, exercising while following the latest exercise fads, spending time outdoors in order to get the required sunlight, following online workout videos and developing more conscientious interest in their overall health and fitness. Such people were left feeling anxious, helpless and trapped during the lockdown.

Personal trainer for cricketers Shehzar Muhammad while talking to The Express Tribune explained how the country went on to a path of fitness and then Covid-19 changed these dimensions. “People are usually scared of changes and closing of gyms was a setback. People are still scared of coming back to work out even after a year. Covid not only had an effect on the economy but a serious impact on both mental health and physical fitness even though people were getting more time to focus on themselves,” he said.