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With the widespread impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was inevitable that physical training facilities worldwide would shut down for a period of time.

While this was in the public’s best interest to prevent the spread of the virus, people who depend on gyms were left in a lurch.

At face value, the gym may seem to be just a place people go to exercise, but it often serves a deeper psychological purpose.

Though fitness facilities have reopened — with restrictions — in certain areas, they remain fully closed in other areas, driving people to find alternatives to hitting the gym.

This article dives into the effects of gym closures on people’s mental health and includes some solutions to stay active. I also provide a personal story of how I adjusted to life without gyms.

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Photo Courtesy of Daniel Preiato

Walk into any gym and you’ll see people training for a variety of purposes. Some may be working out to become more athletic, whereas others are looking to lose weight or gain muscle and strength.

On the surface, hitting the gym seems mostly physical in nature, but there are several psychological reasons that people train as well. The main psychological factors surrounding gym exercise are:

  • improving body image
  • being part of a community
  • being held accountable
  • promoting a sense of well-being
  • releasing pent-up emotions

With the closure of gyms around the world, many people lost an outlet for these needs and desires.

Lack of community

It’s natural to seek out the gym to be a part of a community.

You may be motivated by seeing other people working out. Some people also have a gym partner they exercise with so that each person has guidance and motivation.

When commercial training facilities closed, this sense of community was taken away. Since the pandemic hit, many people have felt lonely, including those who regularly worked out with friends or relied on a gym’s built-in support network.

Body image

Another reason many people go to the gym is to improve their body image and self-confidence.

While this desire may seem superficial, improving physical fitness has been shown to enhance body image and self-compassion, according to various studies (1, 2).

Gym closures have left many people without this mode of improving body image.

Sense of physical well-being

People often hit the gym to improve their health and sense of physical well-being.

While this sense of well-being can be linked to body image, physical well-being also involves health aspects of improving your physical fitness. This includes exercising to prevent disease, maintain a healthy body weight, and prevent bone loss, to name a few.

For those without a home workout routine, gym closures may have negatively affected a sense of physical well-being.

Lack of motivation

Yet another side effect of gym closures is a lack of motivation to exercise.

Many people go to the gym to be surrounded by like-minded people who are there for a common purpose. These surroundings provide structure and accountability that can help them stay motivated to exercise.

Without the gym environment, some people may find it difficult to effectively train on their own.

Outlet for stress and anger

The gym often serves as a healthy outlet for difficult feelings like anger, stress, and anxiety.

By hitting the gym, you can actively bring your attention to using your body and engaging with your external environment when you feel bogged down by difficult feelings or thoughts.

In fact, a study in 111 healthy adults found that those who exercised were more resilient to the emotional effects of stress (3).

You can use those difficult emotions to fuel a good workout rather than allowing them to manifest in thoughts and actions that could affect those around you.

After gyms closed due to the pandemic, many people were forced to find other methods of emotional release.

Summary

Working out at the gym serves several psychological purposes in addition to promoting physical health. You’re not alone if you’ve been feeling unmotivated or down about your body image while gyms have been closed due to the pandemic.

Despite the mental and emotional effects of gym closures, there are numerous ways to stay active and fit until they reopen.

Building a home gym

One potential solution is building a home gym.

Depending on the type of training you do, your budget, and the available space, a home gym could range from just a few workout items in your living room to full-blown equipment in your garage or spare room.

However, the availability of gym equipment has been limited during the pandemic, with reasonably priced squat racks, indoor cycling bikes, treadmills, ellipticals, barbells, Olympic weight plates, and dumbbells sometimes hard to find.

If you’re looking to build a home gym, you may want to search local classified ads online for used or new equipment at a discounted price.

You can also take a look at these fitness deals.

It’s possible to piece together a fairly well-equipped home gym even on a tight budget.

Online workout classes

Online fitness classes are another gym alternative.

Many trainers who previously held classes at fitness facilities have switched to online classes via Zoom, Skype, or other platforms. Classes are available for workouts such as Zumba, high intensity interval training, cycling, yoga, and boxing.

There is also a variety of apps with live or prerecorded workout videos designed for you to follow along.

Online workout classes can provide the sense of community and external motivation you may have lost after gym closures.

More outdoor activity

Though gyms may remain closed in some areas, this doesn’t have to stop you from staying active outdoors.

Depending on your location and climate, you may be able to hike, swim, row, ski, run, bike, or walk.

Some cities even have outdoor exercise equipment in parks that you can use as long as you practice social distancing and proper sanitization. Outdoor workout classes with limited capacity may also be allowed.

Speak with a mental health professional

If you’re feeling overwhelmed or frustrated with the inability to train at your favorite gym, it may be worthwhile to seek out a qualified mental health professional.

An evidence-based professional can provide an unbiased viewpoint and use science-based strategies to help you cope with your feelings. They may be able to offer a different perspective than your family or friends.

Due to growth in the field of sports psychology, some psychologists specialize in the emotional factors surrounding athletics (4).

While some athletes and coaches remain reluctant about sports psychology, some research suggests this practice may lead to improved athletic performance (4, 5).

The importance of mental health awareness in athletics was the subject of a recent documentary produced in part by Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps.

In some sporting cultures there may be stigmas associated with seeking help from a mental health professional, but these stigmas are unproductive and should be challenged (6).

One review found that athletes’ main barriers to seeking therapy were stigma, low mental health literacy, negative past experiences, busy schedules, and hyper-masculinity (6).

Emotional well-being is just as important as physical well-being when it comes to training, so it’s important to empower yourself to get the help you need.

Summary

Some alternatives to hitting the gym include building a home gym, attending online workout classes, and being active outdoors. Speaking with a qualified mental health professional may also help you cope with difficult emotions.

I’ve been regularly training for about 10 years, so at this point it’s a part of my regular routine.

I follow a blend of powerlifting — which includes variations of the squat, bench press, and deadlift — and bodybuilding, which focuses mainly on isolation exercises. I toss in some conditioning work now and then for heart health.

My driving reasons for training are to promote general health, boost self-confidence, increase my functional muscle size and strength, and relieve stress and anxiety.

How gym closures affected me

I live on Long Island, New York, an area that was hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the early phases of the pandemic, it was uncertain whether gyms would remain open. While there are much more important things than being able to work out, gym-going was still a big part of many people’s lives.

As the pandemic worsened, recreational facilities, including gyms, started closing in my area and around the world.

The fact that I would be barred from training in a commercial gym for quite some time brought out mixed emotions.

As I digested the news, I experienced feelings of frustration, anger, uncertainty, and fear, knowing I wouldn’t be able to practice this physical and emotional outlet that I had become dependent on over so many years.

My plan

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Photo Courtesy of Daniel Preiato

Thankfully, I had collected some basic training equipment over the years, including some dumbbells, an Olympic barbell with weights, an adjustable weight bench, and a flat weight bench.

While it was far from ideal, I was grateful to have this limited equipment.

After making due with it for several weeks, I decided I needed to come up with a more permanent solution, as gyms wouldn’t be opening anytime soon. The whole situation inspired me to transform my dingy garage into a minimalist home gym.

I started by ordering an R-3 Power Rack from Rogue Fitness and some bumper plates from ISellFitness.com since I knew that they would take a while to arrive. I then found an elliptical and a high/low pulley machine locally to round things out.

After some sheetrocking and painting, waiting for the equipment to arrive, and hours of hard work, I had my own little home gym.

I plan on adding a few more pieces of equipment over time to allow for more exercise variation, though I’m grateful for what I’ve acquired so far.

The outcome

While I realize that not everyone has the space or means to build a home gym, you can do a lot of training at home with minimal equipment.

At this point, gyms in my area have reopened with limited capacity and strict health and safety protocols, though they remain closed in many regions around the world.

While my particular quarantine training story has a happy ending, the past year has been an emotionally taxing time for gym-goers worldwide.

I urge you not to discredit your emotions related to gym closures.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, don’t hesitate to reach out to a friend, a family member, or a qualified mental health professional, because you’re not the only one struggling during these difficult times.

Summary

After gyms closed in my area, I built a small home gym in my garage to be able to continue training. This helped me cope with frustration, anger, uncertainty, and fear associated with the inability to hit the gym.

Gym closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic interfered with many people’s usual training schedules, leaving them without the psychological benefits of exercise and potentially leading to difficult emotions.

Although these benefits are often overlooked, they include a sense of community, powerful external motivation, and improved body image.

Some potential solutions for not being able to hit the gym include building a home gym, attending online workout classes, and becoming more active outdoors.

If you’re feeling particularly overwhelmed by emotions related to not being able to train at the gym, it may be helpful to speak with a qualified mental health professional who can provide some guidance.