How to Help Your Clients and Participants Safely Return to the Gym

As we return to in-person fitness experiences, it is our responsibility as health and exercise professionals to help our clients and participants make this transition safely and smoothly. After more than a year of modified at-home and outdoor workouts, and/or increased physical inactivity, not to mention the accompanying stress and anxiety, it is unrealistic and potentially unsafe to think that we can return participants to the same pre-pandemic exercise experience. For these reasons, it is vital that we intentionally modify our approach to ensure safety and enhance our clients’ and participants’ self-efficacy and adherence.  

The fitness industry has done an incredible job of innovating during the pandemic and pivoting to serve our communities. We are now reentering our traditional setting, where we likely feel happy to “go back” to our comfort zone of teaching and coaching in person. It is critical that we acknowledge the collective stress we experienced and again innovate our approach, rather than simply revert to business as usual. While some people continued to remain active at home, others were simply unable to engage in self-care activities, including physical activity. Participants may be uncomfortable, anxious or even fearful about returning to a gym setting for a wide range of reasons, including worries about the risk of injury or extreme soreness, or that they don’t remember specific skills required for a workout. Also, their bodies may have changed and they may not feel comfortable exercising at the same intensity or performing the same  types of activities they once enjoyed. They may also feel nervous about being around others again, so it is important that we plan for these concerns and make the transition safe and accommodating for everyone.

Here are a few ways to help make this a smooth transition for both you and your clients and participants:

Offer Validation

Taking time to validate the needs of others reduces anxiety and allows for a deeper connection with clients and participants. We have experienced a lot, and we are simply not the same as we were in early 2020. Give space for clients and participants to reflect on what they need for their personal health and safety. Consider beginning a class or training session with a recognition of this new reality and acknowledge where participants are today. Remind them that anything they need to do for themselves during this class or session is not only acceptable but honored. Recognize that returning may feel scary and identify all the opportunities they have to be in control of their bodies and personal space. When a participant makes a choice that is different from others, support them for knowing their needs. Beginning a class with validation creates trust, comfort and a feeling of control over one’s personal safety.

Focus on Form

Every person is different. The stress and habits of the last year have impacted our posture, movement patterns, strength, weight, etc. Even for those who did remain active, it was likely not at the same intensity level as pre-pandemic and may have included different modes of exercise. Offer understanding and time to focus on form rather than load. Support participants in knowing their bodies and prioritizing how to move safely, effectively and with confidence. This enhances self-efficacy as well as adherence.

Prioritize Movement

Celebrate your clients and participants for showing up to move their bodies, rather than for achieving a specific level of intensity, even if they intended to move for 60 minutes but could only manage half that time. It is important to have sessions that do not involve all-out effort. Reflecting again on the different bodies many of us inhabit since early 2020, we can ensure participant safety and adherence by removing the pressure to move at a high intensity. Participants will be more likely to return if we prioritize successful movement over intensity.  

Provide Options

Give participants options that allow them to feel safe, cared for and empowered to make choices that are right for them. This includes our standard exercise modifications, regressions and progressions, as well as other options. For instance, offer options for continued physical distancing. The sensory experience of going from quarantine to a gym full of people can be jarring. You may also need to provide more opportunities for rest or recovery than you may traditionally offer and providing options to modify large chunks of a workout or to even end their workout early can help put clients and participants at ease. Expand the view of what it means to offer options and focus on empowering them to make decisions that align with their needs.

Create Specialty Offerings

Consider creating specialty classes or small group training sessions that focus specifically on returning to the gym. This might include offering sessions that focus on form, movement and/or conditioning. This creates a more specific concentration for both you and your participants, while also clearly communicating an intention with your community.

Eliminate comments on weight

Avoid using pandemic weight gain as a marketing strategy or inspirational tool. Remarks about changing one’s body shape or size based on a traumatic experience creates personal shame and is not motivating to most participants. Instead, focus on healthy habits to support overall well-being.

It is worth noting that these recommendations aren’t limited to a post-pandemic time—they may be applied to every client and participant we interact with in the future. Training that is rooted in kindness and care allows space for each person’s unique needs while empowering clients and participants to make choices that are right for them, ultimately promoting high self-efficacy, adherence and belonging.

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