This week’s U-turn on Liverpool gym closures is a victory for mental health. Here’s why. 

The coronavirus pandemic has put mental health in the spotlight. Many people sought help and support for the first time, unable to cope with sudden feelings of isolation and anxiety.

One in five adults reported symptoms of depression in the first four months of the pandemic. This doubled from one in 10 in 2019. Lockdown has exacerbated symptoms in people with pre-existing conditions including Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, and Schizophrenia. Samaritans warn the UK is heading for a crisis point.

Mental health emergency

Covid-19 is a serious threat, but it is not the only health crisis we face. The Government has to balance the risk of the virus against the indirect risks to education, health, the economy, and other NHS provisions. Paul Farmer, Chief Executive of Mind, considers it a ‘mental health emergency’. He says: “The devastating loss of life, the impact of lockdown, and the inevitable recession that lies ahead will leave a deep and lasting scar on our nation’s mental health.”

This stands to get much worse in winter. Anything that can help ease the pressure should be encouraged.

Exercise as therapy

The mental health benefits of exercise are well documented. Cycling was the answer in the first lockdown. That daily hour of outdoor exercise was a Spring-highlight, but pounding the wet pavement on a dark evening holds less appeal. There is evidence that exercising outdoors in cold weather poses health risks, particularly for those with existing health conditions, which could put added strain on the NHS.

Home-workouts are great, but impractical if you’re jostling for limited floor space. The rise in WFH also means more people spend their days confined to their living room. Melissa Smith says: “I already spend eight and a half hours a day working on my laptop, I then have four separate zoom groups for various social groups. Without the gym, my entire life is lived out through a screen. It’s horrible.”

Gyms must stay open

The gym is a lifeline for many people with depression, particularly when treatment is so hard to access. Lindsay Mifsud has an anxiety disorder and currently attends the gym five times a week as part of her ongoing treatment. She says: “I can literally be in the grip of a panic attack when I go in the gym, and I come out an entirely different person. I’ve been working from home for six months. The only time that I get out and see people is at the gym. I’m worried that if the gyms close, my mental health will seriously deteriorate.”

Gyms in Liverpool are now allowed to reopen after a week of being closed under Tier 3 lockdown. Nick Whitcombe’s campaign to Save Liverpool Gyms was backed by MPs, police, and the Liverpool mayor and crowdfunded over £50,000. He said his members’ mental well-being was a top priority.


Unjustified Closures

The u-turn shows there was no justification for singling out Liverpool gyms, while in Lancashire and Greater Manchester, gyms remain open. 1.7% of Covid-19 cases come from gyms, compared to 9.6% in restaurants (which remain open).  Virologist, Prof Jonathan Ball, says that gyms are not a significant hotspot for infection. Most are following the guidelines to keep people safe.

Winter lockdowns will be tough for our already fatigued and dispirited nation. Feelings of loneliness and depression are likely to magnify as the days get shorter and as seasonal pressures take hold, and gyms are important to combat these issues. Society has made great progress in prioritizing mental health during the pandemic. We can’t let that go to waste.

Lucinda Herbert

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