by CHRIS ROGERS
The Winona Family YMCA has been a big part of Winonan Sara Bittle’s daily life since she was a little girl. Then COVID-19 happened.
“It was horrible,” Bittle said of the Y’s temporary closure during the spring shutdown. “For our family that is such a big part of our daily routine. It was devastating almost.”
“When I couldn’t go for eight weeks, that was a killer for me,” Betsy Grewe echoed.
Like many other organizations, the YMCA had to completely reinvent how it serves its clientele this year — more than once. The pandemic posed some unique challenges for gyms — especially for group fitness classes that for so many people provide the motivation, accountability, and fun they need to work out — and the Y came up with some unique solutions.
Bittle is a regular at Body Pump fitness classes. “I love the people there, the instructors, the music,” she said. “It makes me feel stronger. Not that I’m really buff or anything, but as a women it makes me feel I’m doing something good for my body.”
Grewe does a variety of classes: Body Pump, Zumba, a kind of kickboxing aerobics. “I lost my husband a year and a half ago. It was very sudden,” she explained when asked about why she likes group fitness. “And to be honest the working out and staff … that was one of the best things I could have done was to start doing that again. That had a really big impact on my life, because you want to get back and see people.”
When the Y had to shut down in March, it was expected, but still a bummer, Grewe said. “I thought, ‘Well, it’s not going to last very long,’ like we all thought,” Y Fitness Instructor Angela Thompson recalled. Of course, it did last two months. “I could feel myself kind of spiraling and getting into that [mode of] I don’t want to work out because it’s not in my routine,” Thompson said. People who had relied on fitness classes to provide a foundation of daily wellness were suddenly adrift.
However, within a few weeks, the Y started offering virtual fitness classes. The organization even loaned out exercise equipment to members during the closure.
For instructors and participants alike, the virtual classes were an adjustment. “It was a little odd, because you’re in a room by yourself and talking to yourself,” Thompson said of leading virtual classes. “But you know, once you get over your comfort level, you get into a routine again.”
“What you really need to do when you teach virtual is just be very creative and motivated,” YMCA Fitness and Wellness Director Jackie Goyette said. People following along at home don’t have all the same exercise equipment classes normally call for, so instructors have to pick routines that use minimal equipment or else get inventive with replacements, she said, recalling how one instructor used nylon stockings instead of elastic exercise bands or pillows instead of medicine balls. One challenge attendees might not think of: The Y had to find non-copyrighted music to use for the virtual classes, since they didn’t have the rights to stream licensed songs, Goyette explained. “It’s been challenging. It’s also been rewarding,” she said of virtual classes. “Not everybody can come back yet, so we want to make sure we offer both options.”
“One nice thing — I don’t live in town, so it was saving me driving time,” Grewe said of online classes. “But it’s just not the same as having that personal contact with the instructor and the other participants.”
This summer, in accordance with Minnesota Department of Health recommendations, the Y was finally able to reopen. The reopening wasn’t a return to the status quo, however. People visiting the Y for anything — whether swimming laps, lifting weights, or joining a fitness class — have to reserve a time slot online in advance to help ensure the facility doesn’t exceed its state-mandated capacity limits in each room. Visitors and members are screened at the door with temperature checks and questions about COVID-19 symptoms, and then it’s one-way traffic only through the building, Goyette explained. Everyone is asked to bring their own towel, water bottle, and exercise mats, and doors are propped open to minimize touch points. In the fitness studio, the fairly large space is limited to just 12 people, with six-by-eight-foot boxes marked on the floor for each person. Masks are required until people reach their workout area. The reopening required Y leaders to think about the minutia of every aspect of how people move through the building. “We have planned everything out to a ‘T’ — big time,” Goyette said.
To allow space between classes, the Y is offering about a third of its normal amount of fitness classes. “We’re a little slow to bring back active older adult offerings because they are considered a higher risk group,” Goyette explained. The Y is offering many virtual classes for older adults and some in-person Tai Chi, Qigong, and aqua aerobics.
When, at last, Grewe and Bittle could return to the in-person classes, all of the changes and COVID-19 precautions were a little odd at first, they said. There wasn’t the normal stop and chat for minutes on end atmosphere, Bittle said. “All these things I had to get used to, but at the end, it was like, ‘Oh, this is what I do this for,” she stated.
“Once I got in class, it felt like home,” Grewe explained. “It just felt so — ‘Oh, my gosh, I really missed this.’”
“The emotions — I just wasn’t expecting,” Goyette said of her return to in-person classes. “I had to almost compose myself to not start crying in front of my group. I noticed that with some other members of my group. It really starts flooding back to you how much you miss it.” Goyette has been teaching classes several times a week for almost 12 years. “It’s a big part of my life, and it didn’t quite hit me until we were back from being home … You don’t always know how much it means to you until it’s taken away,” she said.
The YMCA is still offering virtual classes, in addition to in-person programs. More information is available at www.winonaymca.org.