LANCASTER – Unique to the area, Lancaster has a residents-only gym that is free of charge to use, called the Backstage Gym. It is located in the center of town, inside the Lancaster Community Center – unsurprisingly, on the stage – and has recently reopened after its forced closure due to the pandemic.
“The gym is a cooperative venture of the Friends of Lancaster Seniors and the town of Lancaster,” said Alix Turner, director of both the Community Center and the Council on Aging.
The town supplies the space, insurance and equipment maintenance as well as town employees like facilities workers (and Turner) to help keep the gym running. The Friends finance the project, donating the fitness equipment and supplies to the town, at a cost of $8,000 and counting. According to Turner, the Friends also provide “the many volunteers who make the place hum.”
The Backstage Gym opened in July 2019. Until the coronavirus closed it for six months from March until September, it offered increasingly longer hours and a growing list of fitness classes to 83 members over 639 gym uses.
Classes are on hold for now, but the gym is reopen for reservations of an hour at a time, once per day, up to five times a week. Three people at a time can use the gym between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. on weekdays.
Equipment available includes a treadmill, elliptical, two types of bikes (including recumbent), an upper body and multi-purpose machine, two weight benches, some free weights and resistance balls. Turner said all equipment is professional-grade, exactly the same as would be found in a for-profit gym business.
“We didn’t skimp,” she said. “A healthy community is a happy community.”
In addition to fitness and better health, that’s exactly what several Lancastrians said it provides – a community feel. People have missed the social aspect of working out with their neighbors.
“I like that everyone that goes to the gym is friendly. It’s really community-centric,” said Lancaster resident Judy Kittler Zmijak, who used the gym one to three times a week pre-pandemic.
Fellow resident Amie Caraballo agreed. “I’ve grown to love it and would use it even if there was a small fee. I’ve also enjoyed being able to meet other members of the community. I would absolutely recommend this gym to other Lancaster residents.”
The gym is used by all ages, from teenagers to retirees, pickleball players to those recovering from surgery, young mothers to empty nesters, groups of friends, and the occasional town employee.
“The gym was a longtime dream for the Council (on Aging), even before I arrived over seven years ago,” Turner said. In 2016, the Friends of Lancaster Seniors received a $5,000 donation to improve fitness, which sat unused until a group of volunteers headed by two local women took charge of the idea to open a community gym.
Sisters Jane-Ann Crossman and Joanne MacLaughlin were going to the Perkins School fitness center for the one hour a day, twice a week, the only time it was open to the public, but that didn’t give them enough time to work out. MacLaughlin also noticed that Lancastrian seniors were “lining up to get in” for that one hour.
Around the same time, Crossman and MacLaughlin became involved in the Council on Aging and the community center, and together had the idea to use the stage area. Quickly obtaining support from Turner in April 2019, they spent over a month cleaning out the stage; Crossman said after a week they could “clearly envision the space.”
They presented the idea – using the previous donation – to the Council on Aging and then to the Friends. Both groups approved it, and the Friends agreed to fund additional monetary requests to create a fully-functional gym.
“The Friends have been a saving grace and a vital financial source,” Crossman said.
Turner said it’s important that “our population gets healthier. It saves the town money, and makes Lancaster a better place. The top benefits are obvious: Healthy residents are less of a strain on emergency services. But we often forget the more subtle ones. Physically-fit residents are more productive workers, thus have better earning potential; they volunteer more, too, which is a huge savings to the community. Equally important are the benefits to mental health, studies show improved physical health improves mental health and thus reduces the cost of services.
“There is no crowding, no pressure, and no judgement,” she added.
All gym patrons need to start by having a session with a personal trainer before using the equipment for the first time.
“We want everyone to feel comfortable and optimize their workout so they continue to use the gym. Even more importantly, we don’t want people to get hurt by using equipment incorrectly,” Turner said. Professional trainers “generously donate their time to our neighbors to make sure people are well trained.”
If patrons want to continue working with a trainer, the gym offers a list, or they can bring their own. Even before COVID-19, some members had trainers they worked with over video chat.
To sign up for a workout slot, go to the SignUpGenius link on the gym website or via the weekly newsletter. Turner recommends signing up on Saturday or Sunday for the upcoming week.
Masks are required (including when actively working out) with sanitizer available upstairs and hot water and soap downstairs. Commercial sanitizer spray is to be used by each gym patron before and after using each piece of equipment, and before they leave.
Every evening, the gym is fogged by an electrostatic cleaner.
“The more scientists (discover) about COVID, the more they agree it is vital to maintain a healthy immune system. Working out goes a long way to helping improve your immune response!,” Turner said. “COVID is not to be dismissed easily, we recognize those among us at highest risk are safer at home. Visiting the gym may still be too risky for some people, but for others it is an acceptable risk. We strictly follow CDC guidelines and appreciate our Board of Health helping us to develop our plan to balance risk by allowing limited fitness offerings, in a distanced, clean environment. “
The gym is fully ADA-accessible via the three-door elevator from the lower level of the community center.