Group exercise instructors across the country are calling on the Government to lift the ban on indoor group exercise in tier three areas. They argue that not only are freelance instructors’ livelihoods at stake, but the health of the nation is at risk.

A petition started by Suzanne O’Hara, a fitness instructor based in Greater Manchester, has now gained over 17,000 signatures. The petition asks for group exercise classes to continue in tier three, noting that gyms and health clubs are allowed to remain open. EMD UK, the national governing body for group exercise, have now pledged their support to the campaign which they deem ‘critical to the nation’s health’.

Prior to the second national lockdown, group exercise classes were allowed to continue across all tiers. Group exercise instructors across the country were running COVID-19 secure classes, allowing many communities to access the many physical, mental, and social benefits in a safe environment.

These classes were able to continue due to guidance and support from EMD UK, who wrote the sector’s Return to Play guidelines. The guidelines define how group exercise classes can be run in a COVID-19 secure manner, including increased social distancing, reduced class numbers, and timetable changes to account for more cleaning and hygiene breaks. EMD UK’s Return to Play guidelines have been accessed by over 9,000 instructors across the country and were signed off for use by both Sport England and the Government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport. EMD UK was, therefore, ‘baffled’ when indoor group exercise classes were banned in tier three when they had previously been exempt from closure.

Sue Wilkie, Head of Instructor Development for EMD UK, said “Having proven that group exercise is a COVID-19 secure activity and with increased measures both before and after classes, it is baffling that the Government have decided to revoke indoor group exercise classes in tier three. Currently, over 40% of the English population is in a tier three area, which means many of the communities who enjoy group exercise classes cannot attend their classes. Additionally, thousands of group exercise instructors are now facing their hardest year yet, where some don’t know if they’ll have a business going into 2021 or how they will pay their next set of bills.”

According to Sport England’s Active Lives survey, group exercise is the third most popular activity in England, with only walking for transport and walking for leisure above it. Nearly five million people in England took part in group exercise classes every week prior to the pandemic, with eleven million taking part every month. With the activity predominantly attracting a female audience and one million more older adults taking up group exercise classes between 2016 and 2018, these two groups are being disproportionately affected by the ban of indoor group exercise in tier three.

Although there are options for instructors to stream their classes online, technology can be a barrier, especially for older adults. Instructor Wendy knows this first-hand: “At the moment I am unable to teach as the class are elderly so half of them do not have email or even a computer let alone Zoom. I have therefore lost all my income.” In a recent survey of group exercise instructors, EMD UK found that loss of participants was one of the main changes in their career. They cited that the loss was mainly from older adults who did not have the technology or knowledge to access an online platform. Instructors also noted that the number of celebrities who offered free classes during the pandemic had affected their class numbers and income.

Suzanne O’Hara, who started the petition online, said “I started the petition because I believe passionately that access to group fitness/studio-based classes is necessary for many peoples mental and physical health. I believe that we are able to create an environment safer than many other industries which have been allowed to remain open in tier 3 locations.

Our classes have changed drastically due to COVID-19 and even when open and running at full capacity the virus has meant our classes have to be altered and the service we are delivering is not the same. Our customers are understanding of this but with no classes at all is difficult for us to continue to motivate these customers to remain invested with us.

Tier 3 restrictions have meant we have been able to reopen at around 60% capacity, we are lucky that our work with under 18s has been able to continue but our adult classes are vital not only to our income but also to the environment we create within our business. Without our adult classes resuming we are not the same business we were before.

My concern is that many adults mental and physical health is deteriorating as a result of not having access to these classes. For many it was their only opportunity to socialise outside of their home and many are left frustrated that they can go shopping but aren’t able to attend their classes with numerous Covid-secure measures in place. Business owners in our industry are often forgotten and many are self-employed. Our businesses rely on retention of our customer base and the longer we aren’t allowed to offer our services the less likely it is we will retain those customers.”

In a recent joint statement from industry bodies, EMD UK, ukactive, CIMSPA, and Les Mills, Martin Franklin (Les Mills Europe CEO) said “The decision to exclude this key activity for the health and wellbeing of the highly qualified and skilled instructors and the passionate and committed class participants defies belief when this context is considered. The data is clear and shows that group exercise plays a fundamental part in the nations’ recovery from COVID-19, both physically and mentally. At Les Mills, we are dedicated to creating a fitter planet for all and this must represent accessible and inclusive exercise.”

With the petition reaching over the threshold of 10,000, the Government must now respond. 100,000 will trigger a Parliamentary discussion. You can add your signature to the petition here: