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With “impeccable timing,” Harry Hill opened Japan’s first UFC Gym on April 6—only to close it three days later when the Japanese government declared a state of emergency in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“It wasn’t like that took us by surprise. But by the time we were pregnant, we decided to give birth,” said Hill, who is chief executive officer of Better U, Inc., operator of the UFC Gym located near Yoga Station in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward.

Hill and his personal trainers quickly pivoted to offer online workout sessions for members, most of whom were working from home and wanted an exercise outlet. “If people can’t come to the gym, we’re going to bring the gym to them,” he said.

In June, after the emergency was lifted, the gym reopened—in a Covid-19 world requiring numerous precautions. The coronavirus has forced fitness businesses to adapt, and changed the way many of us exercise—even discouraging many from doing so at all.

That’s an unhealthy trap we need to avoid, personal trainers told The ACCJ Journal. Working from home has its perks, but it has also made many of us sedentary, as we sit in our home offices for hours-long video meetings during the day and bing­ing on Netflix at night. Stress and snacking are plentiful. Weight gain is common. Stretching and moving periodically—at home, outside, or at the gym—is vital to both physical and mental health, they said.

“Our goal is to have people fight-ready, life-ready,” said Hill, who also serves as a coach at the UFC Gym. “Everybody has a fight, and part of the fight is to stay healthy. Particularly during this time of corona, it’s more of a challenge. How do you stay healthy? How do you keep yourself in perfor­mance condition?”

Daily Ultimate Training. Photo: Miki Kawaguchi/LIFE.14

Spaces where people do a lot of sweating and heavy breathing are inherently riskier, and there is a greater chance that diseases could spread. With this in mind, operators needed to take many steps to ensure people could work out safely when facilities reopened in June.

At both the UFC Gym and the fitness center at Tokyo American Club (TAC), masks are mandatory and workouts are by appointment only—no walk-ins are allowed. The number of people in the gym or in classes is capped, and equipment is wiped down with sanitizer after each use.

At TAC, the exercise machines have been spread out to create more space and plastic dividers installed between them. Every 90 minutes, members must clear out while staff clean all the equipment. “We do everything we can” to make the gym safe, said Takeshi Hirata, a personal trainer at TAC who mostly works one-on-one with members.

Hirata also senses that people seem more stressed with all the Covid-19-related disruptions and restrictions. Lifestyle patterns have had to change, and some expat families have been split up as a result of the reentry ban imposed by the Japanese government, which had blocked entry—even by permanent residents—from 146 countries. This has added significantly to the anxiety. The ban was partially lifted for foreign residents on September 1.

“It’s a stressful time,” Hirata said. “Life has changed. It’s defi­nitely a transition, adjusting to a new normal. And we don’t know how long this will last. Exercise will help remedy that, but not entirely. It helps you cope.”

Being cooped up at home and adjusting to all the changes have made some people crave exercise even more. “It’s some­thing you recognize when you lose it,” Hirata said. “Now that there are more restrictions, people are realizing the importance of exercise. We’ve lost some things we took for granted, and we’re not sure we’re going to get them back anytime soon.”

Hirata has had to change his coaching style. He is careful not to touch people as much and tries to rely on verbal and visual cues. Also, with everyone wearing masks, it’s hard to read members’ expressions and how they’re faring as they exercise. “I pay more attention to their breathing, face, and gestures,” he said. “I can only see their eyes, so it’s kind of hard to read their state. I tell them to tell me how they’re feeling. It’s all about communication.”

At TAC, members have returned for one-on-one workouts, but, so far, not many are coming in for the group classes—perhaps because of concerns about exposure to others, trainers said. Online sessions are in full swing and may be here to stay. Hirata says about 40 percent of his teaching and training is online.

Photo: Kayo Yamawaki/Tokyo American Club

The trend is opposite at the UFC Gym, where small group workouts are proving more popular than one-on-one sessions, Hill said. The most in-demand program is Daily Ultimate Training (DUT), a 60-minute cross-fitness workout limited to eight people. Members can also participate in DUT at home through Zoom.

These are grueling regimens that involve high-intensity interval training and aim to push a participants’ heart rate to 85–95 percent of maximum.

For example, UFC Gym master trainer Darrell Harris recently led one such workout that started with five three-minute rounds of jumping jacks followed by five three-minute rounds of planks, two two-minute rounds of lifting kettlebells, and two rounds of one-minute push-ups. Each was separated by 15 seconds of rest.

“Those are soul-catchers,” said Hill, who participated in that workout and believes group dynamics help spur members on. “It becomes easier to gut through something like that if you’re in a group, and you’re looking around and seeing others do the same thing. We were doing it in the gym, but you could easily do it at home. In fact, there were a couple people doing it remotely.”

While the gym can provide intensive workouts, there are plenty of stretches and exercises people can do at home or outside to stay fit, feel good, and reduce stress, the trainers explained. In fact, doing so is vital to maintaining your overall health and emotional well-being.

“Let’s say you sit all day and one joint becomes weak, and then your core gets weak. That can affect your whole body,” said Hirata. “Our bodies were meant to move. We are not sedentary animals. If you don’t use your body, your joints get stiff and your body gets weaker. We need motion.”

Stretching tends to get overlooked but is essential to fitness, the trainers said. Hirata suggests setting a timer to go off every two hours for some stretching— particularly of your back.

In another stretch done while seated, twist your body to the right by putting your left hand on your right knee and try looking behind yourself, said Robert Daoust, a personal trainer at TAC. “That’s good for the spine and helps relieve tightness in the back and shoulders.” Or, when standing, you can do a lateral side bend, in which you stretch your arms above your head and interlock your fingers, bend to one side as far as you can, and then bend to the other, he said.

“If you move, it lubricates your body,” Hirata explained. “If you don’t move, your body gets rusty.”

Even pausing occasionally to do some deep breathing is beneficial, Daoust added. “Breathing is very underrated. It’s the number-one reliever,” he said. “It gives you mental clarity. Basically, you’re oxygenating your body and working your lungs. The mental thing is big, because, in times of stress, our breathing becomes shallow.”

People don’t even need a large space or weights to exercise at home, the trainers said. So much can be done using one’s own body weight to strengthen muscles and get fit. Examples include crunches, lunges, planks, push-ups, and jumping squats. You can even use a 1.5-liter bottle filled with water as a homemade, disposable weight.

“Literally, if you have two square meters, that’s enough,” said Hill. “Our customers, mostly Japanese, are doing boxing conditioning workouts in two square meters. It’s not just about moving the arms, it’s about moving your body, moving your head. That’s going to increase your heart rate. You can add some push-ups and sit-ups. All that can be done at home.”

Varying your exercise routines is also important, Hill says. The UFC philosophy encourages members to try a variety of activities offered at its gym, from boxercise and Brazilian Jujitsu to Pilates and yoga.

“There’s all sorts of sports science that shows that the best way to stay in shape is to change up your routine,” he said. “If you get too stuck in a single routine, what tends to happen is the body starts to plateau.”

The UFC Gym, one of more than 150 around the world, is partly inspired by the training methods used by elite mixed martial arts athletes who compete in the Ultimate Fighting Championship series. But the acronym also stands for “unity, family, and community,” the gym’s slogan.

“We’re family oriented. This isn’t a fight gym. We focus on conditioning,” Hill said. “Everything we’re doing is based on functional fitness, more than just having to look good.”

He pointed out that many gym-goers tend to focus too much on cardiovascular activities, such as running, spinning, or rowing. “We don’t discourage cardio, but people typically overdo it, and they don’t do enough core work, resistance-type work.”

People working out these days have a wide range of aspi­rations, from losing weight and getting or staying fit to gaining strength or simply feeling better, the trainers said. New members start with a consultation in which the trainer seeks to understand their goals, explain the interrelated nature of our bodies and set up an appropriate program.

“A lot of people just want to feel good,” said Harris, the head trainer at the UFC Gym. “They know they need to change something. But if you want to just lose weight, that’s a double-edged sword, because muscle weighs more than fat. If they’re just looking at the scale, they’ve got the wrong approach.”

The pandemic has also sparked innovation and entrepreneur­ship among professional trainers.

Within days of TAC’s gym closure in early April, personal trainer Daoust started offering outdoor workouts at nearby Shiba Park, where he set up several TRX suspension trainers—long straps with handles that can be anchored to a tree or fix­ture for a variety of total resistance exercises. He also loaded up his SUV with kettlebells, steel balls with handles, medicine balls, and skipping ropes, which he set out in the park for people to use.

He offered interested passersby free trials, and a number of them became regular paying clients. Some TAC gym members also joined him.

“I was able to turn things around pretty fast,” Daoust said. “I got some new clients from people just watching me train in the park. Different things came together kind of spontaneously.”

Now Daoust is juggling three jobs. In July, he opened his own karate school—Tokugen Dojo—in Koto Ward. There he teaches Japanese kids in English. He has also returned to TAC even as he continues the outdoor park workouts.

At TAC, he teaches TRX suspension training. For one-on-one workouts, he prefers using free weights over machines because he sees them as more beneficial. Sitting at a machine and push­ing the weights taxes the muscles, he explained, but doing a similar workout with free weights requires you to stabilize your midsection and core, and to use balance. “It’s a bit more demanding on the body, and it translates better to daily life and sports,” he said.

UFC Gym checks each person’s temperature on arrival.
Photo: Miki Kawaguchi/LIFE.14

Given the concerns about contracting Covid-19, Harris said research shows that suddenly jumping into vigorous exercise can weaken the immune system. It’s best to focus on mid-intensity workouts and to make sure you have a good base before trying anything more rigorous.

“High-intensity workouts actually compromise the immune system and make it more susceptible to illness,” he said. “But if you start with mid-intensity, it gets the body primed and prepped. Then you can go on to high-intensity.”

For fitness, Hill said it’s important to take the long view. “It’s a marathon. What you don’t want to do is to completely gas yourself, because that will bring your immune system down. What we’re really working for is something more modest. You hold back, but you do it more often.”

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Malcom Foster is a freelance journalist who has been covering Japan for more than a decade.
The coronavirus has forced fitness businesses to adapt and changed the way many of us exercise.