Sport, Interrupted: Income freeze leaves gym instructors anxious, confused

Gyms, along with cinema halls and shopping malls, were one of the first to slam shut due to the lockdown. Sunil Ghosh/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought the sporting economy to a shuddering halt. In India, the lockdown and its longer-term implications threaten the future of clubs, academies, leagues, support staff, all the people who help move the wheels of sport. In this series, ESPN looks across the country's sporting ecosystem, from the big clubs to the neighbourhood academies, to see how they've been affected.

When Deckline Leitao, strength and conditioning coach to many of India's elite athletes, pulled close the door of his apartment in Hebbal, Bengaluru on March 21, he had a suitcase in hand, a full tank of petrol in his car and a pang over his unexpected departure. "I felt that I might not see my house for two months. It was sad." Leitao drove to Goa that day, reaching his mother in the Chinchinim family home, 90 minutes before Goa sealed its borders.

In the days since, Leitao's 6am-8pm working days have been replaced by introspection, enjoying his mother's cooking and playing online counsellor to the trainers and coaches around his workplace and younger professional colleagues through social media.

In the earliest days of the COVID-19 lockdowns, gyms, along with cinema halls, malls and sports fields, were marked as crowd-magnets, their doors slammed shut. These included the rudimentary neighbourhood gyms running out of someone's basement as well as the high-end franchise outfits occupying three storeys of a building. The size of India's recreational fitness industry was tagged at US$3.5b in a study by the Global Wellness Institute, with a 2019 report saying there were 24,000 gyms in India.

Gym instructors earn based on their experience: a newcomer will earn on average Rs 15,000 a month as his gym salary and between Rs 8000-10,000 per client for personal training. Of that personal training fee, 60 percent goes to the gym and the remaining 40 percent to the trainer. Through that route, a new instructor can hope to earn between Rs 30-50,000 a month with three or four personal clients. The next salary bracket of Rs 50,000-Rs 1 lakh a month includes senior trainers who have worked for more than five years in the field and do home visits as well. From that level, there are celebrity trainers and the entrepreneur-trainers who set their own centres in order to earn a greater income. For every single person up and down that ladder, life has come to a halt due to COVID-19.

The sudden freeze in income has trainers anxious and confused. "The common question is why a gym should be closed when we know it is good for health? They are youngsters and a lot of them don't look at the medical side. They just think fitness is good. 'Open gyms, let's train, we will fight coronavirus together, we will become corona warriors'," Leitao says. Leitao, 47, is based at the RxDx Samanvay Centre in Malleswaram, Bengaluru, working with two specialist assistants for the competitive athletes he trains, and five other trainers for the general public.

Reading about the virus' international spread from China, Leitao, 47, an industry veteran who began in 1994 and went full-time from 1999, had been warned. After returning from England in February, "I had something of a clue and had told my assistants things might get worse so let's be prepared." The second week of March was the last week of training and he told them, "This is affecting everybody - from an airline pilot to a construction worker - and I tell the trainers and younger people that we are in an industry which is in the luxury segment."

He has given two pieces of advice to his junior colleagues and others. The first is, cut expenses; "Trainers have this habit of acquiring a lot of bling, watches, bikes and fancy jeans. Our field is such - it's all about muscles and appearance and we are the cool dudes and we work with the cool people and we like to have this stuff. I told them this is not the time to spend." The second, hang on to perspective. "I say as long as you have food to eat and a roof to sleep, life is not that bad. It's not. Business is bad, but life is not bad."

Leitao is not sure when he will return to Bengaluru and the RxDx Samanvay Centre, but is aware that he will not be returning to the life he lived before COVID-19. Leitao's employers have paid staff their salaries, "but I don't know for how long someone can pay from their own pocket, they can stretch themselves for two months, but this can't go on for six months."

His industry and its workplaces, he says, will have to be reimagined in order to make a meaningful re-entry to a world fraught with anxiety about infection, physical contact and social distancing.

He has been talking with the doctors that run RxDx Samanvay about the future of their gym. "I don't think any gym can function how it did. Imagine 30 people coming in, someone is sweating, one guy uses the bench, one guy coughs somewhere. The gym will be like a danger zone."

There are discussions about limiting not just the membership at a gym, but also how those members use the facilities available, spreading them out in terms of how many are allowed in at a time. The new order may well dictate, Leitao says, that gyms "can't afford to let people walk in anytime they want." What is being planned now are batches to occupy different time slots.

An hour and 15 mins in the gym with a batch will be followed by 15 minutes of sanitisation. In a gym the size of RxDx that is 1000sqft plus, at one time only 10 or 12 people could be allowed in. They might be asked to carry their own mats and rollers. They may not be allowed to train every day - maybe no more than three or four days a week. "They train and they leave, then we sanitise for 15 minutes and the next lot come in. Basically like a flight ... otherwise it's unmanageable."

More from 'Sport, interrupted'

Sport, interrupted: How the coronavirus lockdown is affecting the Indian sport ecosystem

Leitao predicts changes in people's fitness habits, saying trainers could also see an increase in personalised home training for one, and he reckons, perhaps in the intensity load as well. Weights and yoga may become the new habit because of the necessity of people to dial down on their training. "If you need to wear a mask while training or running, it's going to be tough. Everyone will have to back off, you won't have the time to lift that amount of weight and sweat that much. I think people won't be lifting as much or doing as much cardio as they used to. That's where yoga comes in." Which gym, he asks, is going to allow anyone to use a treadmill without wearing a mask?

The biggest impact of this uncomfortable new environment, he sees, will be on the gym rats. "Hardcore weightlifting guys, they cannot live without the gym, they will have major issues. Earlier people used to train for a lot of strength... sometimes which was not useful, not needed rather in real life." He compares the gym addicts "the superfit ones" to super cars or bikes, "they were used to racing fast and there are new rules and regulations and you can't. That's it. It's just not allowed. It's just not done."

For his colleagues in the fitness industry, Leitao says, "Those who are living in homes and have food to eat should just realise that life has changed. Our business might not make the same money for the next six to 12 months."