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Personal Trainer, Cancer Exercise Specialist, GM of Castle Hill Fitness
The coronavirus pandemic is challenging each of us to stay healthy and achieve a sense of normalcy in uncertain times. For many, maintaining an exercise routine isn’t just an important part of physical wellness, it’s a pathway to mental clarity and peace of mind.
Castle Hill Fitness is one of Austin’s premier fitness and wellness destinations with two popular locations citywide. Amid COVID-19, they set out to address requests by members for onsite training and coaching resources in the safest way possible. Their thoughtful and methodical approach incorporated global best practices including the installation of 25 Alen BreatheSmart FLEX air purifiers at each location.
To find out how this gym is protecting clients and reopening safely during COVID-19, we spoke with Castle Hill General Manager, Michele Melkerson-Granryd:
How did HEPA air purification enter Castle Hill’s decision-making process for reopening?
"When all of this happened with COVID 19, our owner, who is a self-admitted germaphobe, started talking about closing weeks before anybody else was even thinking about it.
We really looked at our civic duty to our members and to our community, being a place where people can potentially be infected via aerosol transmission, especially because you're breathing heavy and working hard.
We just felt like it was our responsibility to create a safer environment. Maybe not one where we can guarantee anybody's going to be safe, but a safer environment that we would feel more comfortable inviting our clients and our staff back into."
Please walk me through your decision to make Alen air purifiers part of your plan for reopening.
"It started last year with one of our members who owned an Alen purifier and thought air purification would be a good addition to our yoga and Mind + Body studios.
We're a fairly upscale facility. Our members are sophisticated, and they're concerned about their health. So, I’m always looking for things that are going to enhance the experience we're providing. And if it can be something that enhances their health, that's awesome.
We’ve had about 5 Alen units for about a year. After they were in place, one of our trainers actually went out and bought one for his home because he felt like it made such a big difference.
I certainly saw the difference when we changed the filter. I could see how much work it had done. When we saw air quality reading now compared to what it was before, we knew it was obviously making a difference."
You mentioned gaining some insights into reopening from global best practices.
"I actually was in China in early December for a conference. I'm on the board of our international trade association for health clubs and I was presenting there.
Some folks in China in our trade association have been sharing a lot of research and information since they're at least three months ahead of us in terms of reopened."
How did that factor into Castle Hill’s Plan?
"Our owner came up with this idea to create classes in exercise pods—places where members are not going to be as close and exposed.
We've built walls about eight feet high and eight feet in length. They're enclosed on three sides and their width varies from 10 to 13 feet.
Each workout pod contains an Alen air purifier as well as built-in cubbies that hold all the sanitizing stuff like towels, spray, and hand sanitizer.
The idea is that each pod will be self-contained. They may hold a trainer and a client. Or, for our independent workout people, it would be just one person per pod.
The pods have the kind of equipment that you might see in a group exercise space: barbells, weights, and bikes—stuff that they can either use collectively or independently."
How do the pods and HEPA purifiers work with the building’s HVAC system?
"Our goal was to arrange the walls so that we have air circulation coming from above to help push the air down and then have the air purifiers do what they do."
How have you divided up Castle Hill’s largest open spaces using the pods?
"Our big primary group exercise space, at its very most, holds about 25 people. It could probably hold 40 people who really wanted to squeeze in tight. That room now has room for six members and four trainers.
Our Mind + Body studio is where we teach Barre, yoga, and Tai Chi. I think the biggest class I’ve ever had there was 25. That room is set up with five pods right now including an instructor."
Can you describe the process of communicating reopening plans to customers?
"Well, you know, this is all brand new. It’s the biggest social experiment anyone’s ever been part of.
We have very close relationships with our members and we've been in regular communication with them. While we've been closed, we've offered virtual training and livestream classes, about 70 per week, to help our members stay active.
I've been inviting members back if they're comfortable and are willing to wear a mask and observe social distancing. I let them know right off the bat that's part of them coming back. We will have phases of opening. For now, we’re taking temperatures and you have to wear a mask to enter."
Even though members wear masks while in the building, how do you handle entrance and exit?
"We have an entrance pathway in and up the stairs. When members leave, they'll go down the freight elevator and go out a different door so that we don't force anyone to pass in a hallway or the stairway at less than six feet. We've even conducted traffic tests with staff to avoid that."
How are members reacting to the new procedures?
"I feel like people are in different places on the spectrum.
There are some folks who are very cavalier. They’re the ones who show up first just can't wait to get back to normal. They've been so insulated in so many ways and are somewhat quarantine-fatigued. They're ready to live their life again. So they just want to get back into the club and they think we're overdoing it.
And there are others who are so grateful that it feels like we are going so far above and beyond. They're ready to come back because they feel like we're really doing something to make things safe."
What advice do you have for other businesses looking to reopen safely?
"The perception of what you're doing is probably just as important as the reality in terms of how much difference it can make. There are quite a few articles out there that talk about aerosol transmission and how dangerous indoor places can be.
When people hear about air purification and our consideration for how air moves in this space, it provides them with a level of comfort and assurance that we want to be careful.
We don't guarantee anything, but we are certainly doing everything we can to provide them with an environment that's going to be as safe as you can get."
How do you view the connection between air quality, wellness, and fitness? In other words, why is it important to care about air quality when you're exercising?
"There's nobody who likes to be outside more than me. If I had my druthers, I'd much rather exercise outside. But in Austin, because we have such a high level of allergens for so much of the year, the space that you're in makes a difference.
So, if you're doing all this work for your health, you don’t want to bring particles into your lungs that aren't serving you. It just seems like a no brainer to me."
Thanks very much for all this valuable information and insight, Michele. Is there anything you’d like to add?
"I feel really blessed that this partnership was sort of serendipitous, that we were familiar with Alen products via one of our members. I love that we're doing good things for our members in a variety of ways."