'My mental health took a big dive without it': why getting back to the gym is about more than just fitness

With gyms reopening for the first time in months as lockdown restrictions eased in Scotland, those who went told NationalWorld how good it felt to be back

Lift Gym Edinburgh owner Andy Smith prepares equipment (right) as a customer works out (bottom left), while it was a return to breaking a sweat at Crossfit 1298 in Falkirk (top left) (Credit: Michael Gillen/Lisa Ferguson)

While some Scots were queuing outside shops in the early morning hours today, others were excitedly putting on their sports gear to work out in a gym for the first time in months.

After a four month-long lockdown, gyms - along with non-essential shops, swimming pools, pubs, restaurants and cafes - were finally able to reopen their doors on Monday 26 April as mainland Scotland moved into Level 3 restrictions.

Sign up to our NationalWorld Today newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

For some, being able to go back to the gym has meant a significant and welcome return to normal - resulting in a big boost to their mental health.

Maxwell Russell, whose gym is based in Glasgow’s west end, said he was “desperate” to get back to working out this morning as his mental health was impacted when they were forced to close during the fresh lockdown.

He told NationalWorld: “The gym is a pretty significant part of my life. It’s the one thing I always make time for outside of work.

“I noticed my mental health took a big dive without it, and it didn’t help that the closing was compounded by my seasonal depression.

“It was great being back and it was good to see the same faces again.

“The gym keeps me active and mobile when otherwise I wouldn’t have a reason to - I usually go five to six days a week.”

‘I wish gyms had opened earlier’

Ali MacDonald, who plans to go to his Glasgow gym for the first time in months later this evening, said he is looking forward to going back for psychological reasons as he struggled to exercise at home while working his job from the same room in his flat.

“I’ve missed the gym a lot through lockdown as I found it hard to be able to work out in the same space I’ve spent every other minute of the day,” he said.

“Initially, gyms closing wasn’t much of an issue for me as I got really into running through the first lockdown.

“But it was definitely harder through the winter, as dark nights, bad weather and a number of injuries prevented me from running as much as I’d have liked.”

It was a similar situation for Morgan Harrold, who returned to her gym in Hillington first thing on Monday morning.

She said: “I wish the gyms could have opened earlier, as I feel they’re as beneficial for people’s wellbeing as medication is - you wouldn’t close pharmacists.

“Exercising is amazing for my own mental health and I love just getting a change of scenery.”

Harrold, who had been going to the gym for an hour a day four days a week before lockdown, said she was struggling during restrictions to find a home workout that gave her the same feeling as finishing a tough gym session.

Now that they are back open she intends to go regularly.

‘A really pivotal moment in a tough year’

Cariss Banks, a coach at Crossfit 1298 in Falkirk which welcomed about 25 people back for designated workout sessions on Monday, also highlighted the benefits of the gym for boosting mental health as well as physical wellbeing.

“A lot of people go to the gym to specifically see other people - we don’t like being on our own,” she told NationalWorld.

“We like a good bit of chat and a good bit of company as well - we’re not designed to be insular and not see people.”

And Laura Morrison, co-owner of LIFT Gyms in Edinburgh, said of today’s reopening: “The atmosphere in the gym was amazing, everyone was so happy to be there, and it just felt like a really pivotal moment in what has been an extremely tough year for everyone.”

Although gyms have been given the green light to resume, there are still strict Covid rules that customers and staff members will have to follow.

Only individual exercise or working out with people from the same household is permitted at first, until group exercise can resume on 17 May.

And facilities must ensure that equipment is kept clean and social distancing can be maintained at all times.

‘It’s not going to get any safer’

Many gym-goers may be feeling anxious about returning to their local workout hubs when such restrictions are still in place, but Russell said he didn’t experience any nerves while there.

“I wasn’t nervous at all as the gym had been following the guidelines before it had closed and everything was the same,” he explained.

That included sanitisation stations for customers to wipe down equipment, regular spraying of the equipment by staff members and designated workout areas to allow for social distancing.

MacDonald also said he has “no nerves at all” about going back because he has received his coronavirus vaccine.

“Because I’ve been vaccinated, if I don’t go back to the gym now, when am I going to go back?”

He added: “What is the point in waiting when I’ve had the jab which is our way out of this - I’m not going to get any safer.

“I know gyms will have all the correct procedures in place to keep us safe.”