NEW DELHI: Trainer Ravi Shukla rushed to his gym as soon as news came in last fortnight that gymnasiums and yoga institutes could open, pulled out a chair and sat alone amid the treadmills, cross trainers and weights, a broad smile creasing his face.
The smile has broadened since with people slowly trickling back into gyms, giving the fitness industry a stab at revival after six months of shutters down as COVID-19 spread and people stayed confined to their homes.
Business has been hit and may take a while to get back to normal but at least a beginning has been made, say industry insiders.
Though gyms in several states, including Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Bihar, continue to be closed, Delhi and Haryana are among the places where they have been allowed to open, albeit with a host of safeguards in place.
The six months since March, when India went into lockdown to curtail the spread of the novel coronavirus, took its toll on thousands of people who depend on the fitness industry for their livelihoods.
Shukla, a Delhi-based strength and conditioning coach, was one of those who faced severe hardship during the long months that saw the industry face crippling losses and layoffs.
The "emotional and financial stress" led to depression and he was almost at the end of the tether when the Delhi Disaster Management Authority announced that gyms outside containment zones could open.
"I rushed to my gym and sat quietly in the middle of the equipment and machines, smiling ear to ear. That is the first thing I did when I got to know about the government's order allowing gyms to reopen," Shukla, manager and coach at Anytime Fitness in west Delhi's Patel Nagar, told PTI.
He was alone, happy and relieved.
"Being back in the gym worked like medicine for me. Before the pandemic, I would spend nearly 12-15 hours a day there-- barring Saturday or Sunday. I have started getting calls from my clients and they are also excited about joining back. Hopefully, life will be back to normal soon," the 32-year-old said.
Anytime Fitness, a franchise with over 80 gyms across the country, including 45 in the Delhi-NCR region, opened its gyms in the capital last week after taking time to sanitise their premises.
Government-instructed protocols, including availability of sanitisers, spaced out equipment and thermal screening of both staff and members, are in place.
"To maintain social distancing, members are asked to book a slot. After every slot, deep sanitation is done. They are asked to carry their own water bottle, yoga mats, towels and extra pair of shoes.
We have also placed QR codes at entry/exit points, which notes timing of people coming to the gym and is also a health declaration form," said Chirag Khurana, senior manager, marketing, Anytime fitness India.
Karan Chopra, who owns the Iron Club Gym in Rohini, said the onus is on managements and clients to take preventive measures seriously.
"We can only remain safe if we keep in mind basic hygiene and practise the same. We are following all guidelines set by the government -- all symptomatic individuals should stay home, the Arogya Setu App and face masks are mandatory, pregnant women and members above the age of 60 are not allowed and all group activities are restricted," said Chopra.
The many precautions being taken appear to be working for some establishments, who opened about a week-10 days ago.
Anytime Fitness says their numbers are going up each day.
"We are very happy with the footfalls so far. On the very first day of opening, we had 80 people showing up the count is only increasing. We allow only 40 people in one slot. People are sceptical to begin with but when they come and see the gym is following all protocols they get confidence," said Ravi.
Iron Gym's experience has been a little different.
"People are still nervous about heading out and that is the reason we are witnessing fewer people coming to gyms. We allow 10-12 people in a given slot, but so far we have seen only six-eight people showing up," Chopra said.
Many gyms have also taken the initiative to create zones, add separators and step up sanitisation processes.
Grand Slam Fitness, a premium fitness company supplying products to ensure social distancing and safety, has witnessed a spike in demand for equipment such as 'isolators' -- essentially 'separators' that ensure safety for users on parallel machines as they isolate each equipment.
"We are witnessing tremendous demand for the recently launched 'isolator'. It works like an individual workout pod, and is made with transparent acrylic that is extremely easy to maintain and clean," said Prateek Sood, director, Grand Slam Fitness.
The company, he added, is planning to introduce more creative products to ensure a smooth transition for all businesses in health and fitness infrastructure.
The decision to reopen gyms is a sign of normalcy and while some are tentative about stepping into one, most people agree that fitness is the need of the hour, particularly after sedentary months of staying at home.
A 26-year-old schoolteacher said she had just got into a gym routine when the lockdown happened.
Her weight was up to 96 kg and she was borderline diabetic.
"I had just started getting the hang of it after going for some 20-days when the lockdown was imposed."
"I am definitely rejoining. Of course, the task is tougher because I have gained more weight in these months and then there is this fear of coronavirus too," she said.
Even five-star properties, including Crowne Plaza Today, Okhla and Hilton Garden Inn, Saket, offering lucrative staycation packages are positive about increasing the number of footfalls with the availability of a fully functional gym at their disposal.
"A smart health and wellness offering plays an integral role when a guest books a stay in a hotel, be it business or a leisure trip. It benefits the hotel by improving customer engagement and ultimately helping to retain customer loyalty to ensure repeat business," said Ranjan Bannerjee, general manager, Crowne Plaza Today, Okhla.
Some gyms, however, are wary and say they will continue with their online sessions for the moment.
Goodways Fitness, for instance, a leading fitness studio for women, decided to stay shut following feedback from members.
"We won't deny that we got into deep financial distress due to the prolonged lockdown. But let's be realistic, despite all the safety protocols put in place, we cannot assure a 100 per cent Covid free ambience to our customers," said Shakti Kashyap, co-founder of Goodways Fitness.
According to Gympik, a health and fitness aggregator, 20-25 per cent gyms might shut down.
"Until the pandemic is over, the industry needs to plan for its survival" Pivoting the business model to a hybrid model -- online and offline -- is something that fitness centre owners will have to consider to align with this new & changing landscape," said Amaresh Ojha, founder & CEO, Gympik.
India's COVID-19 tally neared 60 lakh with 88,600 fresh infections being reported on Sunday, while the death toll mounted to 94,503 according to the Union Health Ministry.