How the YMCA Survived COVID-19 through Outdoor Exercises

How the YMCA Survived COVID-19 through Outdoor Exercises

Now that North Carolina has entered Phase 2.5, the state’s gyms can reopen (to 30% capacity) for the first time since March. But some gyms had already held outdoor exercises during that six-month stretch. The YMCA of the Triangle, for one, has given fitness classes all throughout COVID-19. How’d they pull it off?

The YMCA Had to Re-Figure Its Classes During COVID-19

This YMCA has long served the Triangle area, according to VP of Healthy Living, Susan Pettengill. “We have served Raleigh, and the broader region, for more than 160 years,” she said in a statement. That community presence meant regular engagement with fitness classes, according to Zumba instructor Erica Tillman. “Classes at the Y were pretty consistent,” she said of the Kraft Family YMCA (where she teaches).

Before COVID-19, her fitness classes welcomed no less that 15 people. “We would get upwards of 30 [people], 35 at times,” she said. But that was before YMCA of the Triangle had to restrict its gym operations to suit new state policies meant to stop the virus’s spread.

Remote fitness classes didn’t solve Tillman’s (or fitness students’) problems.

Like nearly everyone else, the YMCA had to readjust to social distancing mandates. “We ensured that the Y operated in full compliance with CDC, FDA, local, and state health department guidelines and in social distancing practices,” Pettengill said. For Tillman, “full compliance” led to virtual fitness classes and only mixed success.

“I was doing some virtual classes,” Tillman said of the start of YMCA’s closures. “It went well at the beginning,” she continued, “but then the weather changed. People started going outside for the spring.” The loosened restrictions of Phase 2 seemed to loosen her students’ ties to remote-only classes. “It wasn’t taking off like I had anticipated,” she said.

YMCA COVID-19 workout
An outdoor weightlifting class at the YMCA. Image courtesy of Hannah Hathaway.

Outdoor classes didn’t quite solve COVID-19 attendance problems for the YMCA either.

“We were offering out door classes for normal fitness classes,” Tillman said, “especially for Zumba.” While the weather had gotten nice, it soon got unbearable for outdoor YMCA classes (which Pettengill called “workout(side) classes”). “We had a lot of weather to deal with,” she said. Think of Raleigh’s muggy summers, and you’ll understand some miserably sweaty Zumba. Tillman explained that attendance numbers stayed low.

The realities of their parking lots also didn’t help the outdoor fitness classes. “We were on a slight incline,” Tillman said. “Impact of asphalt and concrete is not ideal for people to dance on,” she added. It upset the usual feel and pace of Zumba classes, not to mention risking injury, she said. “That hindered the outdoor classes.”

YMCA COVID-19 outdoor yoga
An outdoor yoga class at the Y. Image courtesy of Hannah Hathaway.

Aquatic Zumba Classes Buoyed YMCA Fitness During COVID-19

Tillman mentioned again and again how successful aquatic classes became. “Aqua Zumba took off,” she said. “Unless there was bad weather, we maxed out at 24 [people] every class.” That filled-to-the-brim streak has lasted through the end of the summer, Tillman said.

The surprise shift to aquatic Zumba provides a few lessons for other businesses struggling to adapt what has become the new normal in NC. Let’s get into what you (or your employer) might want to know.

Don’t type-cast your operations; keep them flexible.

What struck Tillman was how aquatic Zumba has included more people than just older women (the stereotypical example). “When you think of water aerobics, a lot of people associate it with older women,” she said. “But what’s nice about this [new] format is that it attracts a large range of ages and people.” She named new regulars, some of them younger mothers. “They found that they enjoyed it, and it’s actually a good workout.”

Whatever your business capabilities might be, they might expand well enough to adapt for you. Whether you offer local music, elective surgeries or cotton candy, your services could hold more potential than you know. Don’t throw yourself into a whole new operation until you give what you’ve got a deeper chance. Tillman notes that COVID-19 brought flexibility to aquatic classes: “I’ve been able to get additional people in [aqua Zumba classes], people who wouldn’t have tried if not for COIVD, because there wasn’t a whole of other options for them.”

Trust your customers; the good ones might help you out.

Oddly, Tillman didn’t report much social media promotion of the new YMCA classes. “We have a Facebook page that we use to promote classes,” she said. But she only reported class growth through her students’ word of mouth. “We had a couple members that tell other people, Hey, do this class, it’s great,” she said. She doesn’t recall encouraging anyone to pass the word to other members. Pettengill also didn’t describe asking YMCA members to carry any water during COVID-19.

These members spread the word of their own accord. “People go to those classes,” Tillman said, “and they want to see their friends.” She believes that the kinship of YMCA exercise (not to mention its normalcy in COVID-19) led people to do more for their own classes. That’s what you’d hope for, as a business. You can always manage your own strategy from your end, but see about whether your customers will chip in also.

What’s Next for the YMCA Exercise in the Triangle?

For one, Phase 2.5 allows gyms and exercise facilities to open to 30% capacity.

“The YMCA of the Triangle opened select branches on Sept. 9,” Pettengill said. “Operations will be modified at first, but we’re excited to resume some of our members’ favorite Y activities in our facilities. We’re doing it in compliance with all national, state and local guideline.” So far, open YMCA branches include Alexander Family YMCA, Chapel Hill-Carrboro YMCA, Kraft Family YMCA, Northwest Cary YMCA, and others you should check.

Her outlook matched what Tillman expects. “At Kraft [Family YMCA], they’re slowly moving to integrate some indoor classes,” she said. “I’m not teaching those yet, but I think once my aqua season is over, I’ll take some indoor classes.” For now, she looks forward to something besides the outdoor classes. But she did remember aquatic Zumba fondly.

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