As the statewide COVID-19 vaccination rollout continues, with seniors prioritized first, gyms are starting to see a rebound in memberships.

“We are seeing an increase, particularly of older members who are vaccinated,” East Hills Recreation complex director Jeff Berkey said. “They are starting to come back.”

And Pennsylvania’s restrictions on gyms are loosening. Effective Sunday, capacity limits for gyms as well as restaurants entertainment venues will increase to 75% occupancy.

However, vaccinations may not return the gym industry to its pre-pandemic form, suggests a survey by RunRepeat, a running shoe review site.

A third of gym members across the U.S. intend to stay away from gyms even after being vaccinated, the survey showed. That included 11,193 people in 142 countries who canceled memberships.

Johnstown YMCA CEO Shawn Sebring said that survey appears to be ringing true locally.

The YMCA saw 20% more visitors in March than January or February, but membership is still “way down” he said.

At East Hills, too, Berkey estimated that membership is still down roughly 25% percent from pre-pandemic numbers.

“It has hurt financially, not having 25% back,” Berkey said.

At both community fitness centers, programs for youth and adults have helped offset the loss of membership.

“We are coming back different than where we were,” Sebring said.

It may take years for the gym industry to recover from the damage, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association.

Industry revenue plummeted by 58% last year and 17% of fitness facilities permanently closed in the U.S., IHRSA data show.

Evolution Gym on Bedford Street in Johnstown almost went out of business, owner Mike Naglic said.

He reflected on the industry-wide shutdown from March into June 2020.

“Had we stayed closed any longer, we would have stayed out of business,” he said. “It was a slap in the face when I had to go out of business, but I can stop at a beer distributor and buy a six pack because they were considered essential.”

But now, his gym’s membership has mostly returned, he said.

‘We’ve been sedentary’The pandemic caused people to become less active, said Thomas Anders, director at HealthyStyles, a medical fitness center of the Chan Soon-Shiong Medical Center at Windber.

“You want people getting their cardiopulmonary system back in check,” he said. “We’ve been sedentary and gaining weight. It also helps from a mental capacity, interacting with people.”

Anders encourages people to go to gyms and follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that include wiping down machines after use.

“As long as the facility is keeping up with sterilization and CDC guidelines, it’s good to go to a gym,” he said.

Anders said his gym’s membership increased starting in March.

“We have a slightly older population,” he said. “We had a 40% decrease when we opened back up (last June after the initial statewide shutdown).

“We are starting to get people back who had canceled. There are still some staying away, but in most of those cases, they have other health concerns so they are being extra cautious.”

‘Safety of staff’

In some cases, it’s the gyms being cautious.

The YWCA Greater Johns-town isn’t ready to resume children’s swimming lessons despite calls daily from people asking for them, said Diane Lopez, YWCA board president.

“We are looking for safety of staff who tend to be older,” she said. “We have not felt comfortable enough yet reopening children’s swim classes because there would be younger parents, and they are not legally able to get a vaccine at this point, according to Pennsylvania’s vaccination schedule.”

Kelly Morgan, owner of MorGainz Fitness centers in Richland, Somerset, Westmont and Ebensburg, said she is seeing some returnees and is welcoming them with open arms.

“The gym keeps you healthy and keeps you moving,” she said. “Exercise is the best medicine there is.”

Being overweight increases the likelihood of getting severely ill from COVID-19, according to the CDC.

“Obesity is a complex disease with many contributing factors,” the CDC’s website said.

‘In the fresh air’

Neighborhood design can impact obesity rates in a community, according to the CDC.

A Johnstown trail organization is working toward developing ways for the community to cultivate healthier lifestyles, free of a membership charge.

Picking fresh fruit from trees while walking along Plum Street in Woodvale is an experience the Cambria County Recreation Authority is working to give people in the next couple years.

Planting fruit trees along urban trails is one of many goals of the authority, said its executive director, Cliff Kitner.

Kitner’s organization hired the EADS Group and H.F. Lenz to engineer improvements to the Jim Mayer Riverswalk Trail on the east end of Johnstown and the Path of the Flood Trail, which includes Plum Street.

He said the engineering phase of the project, which explores road improvements, bike lanes and connections to local restaurants, is funded by state and local grants. But a timeline for completion isn’t set.

“I look at trails as life blood that helps all communities create healthy options that doesn’t cost the user anything,” Kitner said. “With the pandemic, it’s a good family activity in the fresh air.”

Russ O’Reilly is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter @RussellOReilly.

Russ O'Reilly is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter @RussellOReilly.

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