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Homebound and fighting to stay fit

As gyms shut, what does this mean for India’s fitness community and industry?

Piyush Pandey at Crossfit Himalaya
Piyush Pandey at Crossfit Himalaya

Actor Chris Hemsworth’s popular fitness regime is a mix of lifting, body-weight exercises, mobility work, and an exhaustive diet plan—almost as if he lives the Thor life even outside the Marvel universe. On 23 March, the Australian announced a free six-week trial of his home fitness app Centr, a move triggered by the lockdown due to the covid-19 pandemic.

This coincided with a host of other paid apps making their workouts free for a limited period as gyms, with their weights and cardio machines, were shut—they were deemed to be hot spots for the coronavirus to spread. From sportswear firms like Nike to celebrity trainers like Yasmin Karachiwala, everybody has started posting workouts on social media. Popular YouTube coach Jeff Cavaliere, who has worked with Bollywood’s Aamir Khan and runs the channel Athlean-X, started posting home workout hacks and no-equipment workouts for his 9.5 million subscribers when the lockdown began and gyms started closing down.

There is something common to all of them—they can afford to take their business online and make it free for a few weeks without facing a big loss. They have already made it. For them, the challenge is creativity—thinking outside the box to continue offering their clients viable solutions to work out at home. On the other side of the divide in a massively competitive industry, however, are the freelance trainers, the gym employees, the body builders and other athletes for whom access to a gym and weights is absolutely imperative.

Ahmedabad-based triathlete and five-time Ironman finisher Ingit Anand, 35, was preparing for the Ultraman event in Australia in May. The three-day event entails swimming 10km and cycling 140km on the first day, followed by 280km on the cycle on the second, and an 84km-run on the last day. Pre-lockdown, Anand’s usual workout load per week consisted of running 50-80km, swimming at least 10km and cycling 6-8 hours. It’s a brutal training schedule and it has taken years for his body to get used to the rigour.

“I am lucky enough to own a smart cycle trainer that simulates Ironman bike trails around the world but there is no running, and no swimming for me. My body is confused and it’s a mental battle as well. Even if I do long workouts every day, it isn’t enough substitution for what I am used to," says Anand, who competed in a 10km open-sea swimming competition in Porbandar in January, finishing with a timing of 3 hours, 57 minutes.

Anand has a full-time job at a real estate company, so he is better off in the financial stakes than Ramesh Kumar. Kumar is a bodybuilder from Delhi who was preparing for the IBBF (Indian Body Builders Federation) Mr India national championship in Indore in mid-March that was indefinitely postponed owing to the pandemic. Kumar has already won Mr Haryana and Mr Delhi in the 60kg category and had hoped that a medal at the IBBF nationals would help him apply for a government job. The 22-year-old once worked as an executive on the upkeep of ATMs but this competition and his work training clients at the gym were the only things he had going for him before the outbreak.

“I was spending around 30,000 per month for the last few months in preparation for the nationals and all that has been wasted now. I used to work out for 4-5 hours a day and now, try as much as one may, it’s hard to do more than 45 minutes of training with home hacks and bodyweight exercises. I can do four sets of 100 push-ups every day but it won’t compensate for the weightlifting," says Kumar, who can dead-lift 210kg, bench-press 120kg and squat 200kg.

“The fight for me now is about how much muscle I can save, not gain. I am getting a quarter of the usual 250g of protein intake I had while training," he adds. For Kumar, doing cardio exercises doesn’t really help—his battle is not about losing weight, it’s about maintaining a winning physique. And that needs muscle resistance, volume, overload and stimulus. All these factors are limited in home workouts.

Having started off as a powerlifter and an IFBB (International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness) pro athlete, Tejaswini Pandit now manages training and operations for the global fitness community, F45 Training, in Hyderabad. One of her main roles is to train trainers and she is uniquely placed to understand their frustrations. “Trainers are very hands-on people. They would rather show how to do a push-up and coach people than read the theory behind it. When you put them in a situation like this, they might get lost. Aesthetics (shape, definition, pump, etc.) may not be adversely affected as long as nutrition is taken care of. In order to preserve muscle, you need a minimum of three sets of exercises per muscle per week. But not being able to pay rent and manage expenses is what is really hanging over their heads," she explains.

Anxiety about expenses is hitting gym owners hard as well. Piyush Pandey, who started Crossfit Himalaya in Delhi in 2010, says the fitness industry is an unorganized sector with huge overheads. Both Pandit and he maintain that while this is probably a good time for beginners to work on their push-ups, skipping and squats at home, it is the intermediate and advanced workout enthusiasts who are frustrated with the lockdown.

“I have brought my rowing machine and a few dumb-bells from the crossfit box back home but my responsibility is my community. That’s why we are posting workouts on Instagram and on WhatsApp groups to keep my clients fit. That said, the number of people doing them is far less than the 70-person footfall that I get at the box," Pandey says.

Pandit’s former colleague, Kunal Mahour, is a four-time national calisthenics champion and works at a Pune-based MultiFit gym. He hardly incorporates weights in his training—a floor and a pull-up bar are enough—but the going gets tough even for him. “There is an environment in the gym that pushes people, acting as a huge mental motivator. I could send my clients home workouts but the challenge beyond this lockdown is to retain them. They are my safety net and the worry is whether they will still be there beyond the lockdown. The only positive that I can see from this is that trainers are now forced to be creative, change their tactics and probably encourage other family members to also remain active while staying at home."

All the fitness experts Lounge spoke to were unanimous on their approach to the other challenge—diet. Meat has been replaced by paneer. Eggs by kidney beans and chickpeas and broccoli by bananas. “We are not using the calories we used to eat pre-lockdown so one has to be careful to control the intake." Both Anand and Mahour have drastically cut down their breakfast volumes, while Pandit has stopped drinking milk. “When you see empty aisles, it reflects the mood and state of the situation," she says.

The entire fitness industry will hope that empty gyms and studios post lockdown do not trigger the same feeling among clients. For those who rely on a quickly shifting industry for their living, a 21-day lockdown could be make or break. Ironically, and sadly enough, they seem to be on a workout where they will, quite literally, need to push till failure.

Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writer.

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