outdoor fitness toronto

Toronto gym owner says city's new outdoor fitness program hurts small business

Outdoor exercise classes will once again be permitted in Ontario this weekend after more than two months of heavy COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, and Toronto gym owners couldn't be more excited.

Wait... actually, they could.

You see, as stoked as fitness industry professionals are to begin offering at least one type of in-person service again (actual gym facilities can't open until Step 3), Toronto residents can now get that very service for free or for cheap from the municipal government.

The city unveiled its new "ParkFitTO" pilot program on Monday, mere hours after the province announced that we'd be moving from shutdown mode into Step 1 on June 11, three days earlier than initially planned.

In many ways, it's an awesome initiative that puts Toronto's ample supply of green space to use in service of community health: Outdoor gyms will be set up in parks and parking lots throughout the city beginning June 10, all of them with equipment such as mats, risers and weights, and residents can work out there for free in 45-minute intervals.

On top of this, there are free outdoor "walk-fit" programs led by instructors, and fee-based outdoor group fitness classes including Zumba, Cardio HIIT, Stretching and Boot Camp. The latter classes are capped at 10 people and cost $68 per adult for an entire four-week-long session. Sessions run all summer.

Again, very nice in terms of helping people get active, fit and social during an otherwise isolating time — but is this the right time for city officials to launch such an initiative? At least one Toronto business owner says no.

MJ Shaw, the actor, choreographer, fitness expert and entrepreneur behind Soul Fuel Fitness on Bloor Street West (just east of High Park) was "pretty ticked off" to learn of the city's ParkFitTO initiative.

"I woke up this morning to see that the City of Toronto is starting ParkFitTO, which a couple of years ago, I would have been like 'cool, great… incentivizing health and wellness for the masses'," said Shaw in a video posted to her company's Instagram page Tuesday.

"Today, I don't feel that way... because we are not on equal footing."

Shaw's video comes in the form of an open address to her MP, MPP and city councillors, and contains some valid questions for all three levels of government, chiefly: "How are you going to help us?"

The business owner explains that her industry and studio have been "decimated" by the COVID pandemic after 18 months of forced closures, and that they're at a massive disadvantage as Ontario slowly starts to reopen.

"We're lucky we’re still here, and we're here due to sheer grit, hard work, tenacity and thanks to some government grants which I am very grateful for — but those are drying up," says Shaw in her video.

"So I question why the City of Toronto is creating programs to compete with all of us studio owners who FINALLY have the opportunity to offer something to the public? And now we're being undercut by the city?" she says.

"I don't think that the people that made the decisions to run these programs have had their salaries cut by 60 per cent or had to unload all of their RRSPs to keep their house. That's where I'm at."

She likens ParkFitTO to the city opening up its own hair salons and charging customers half price, and finishes with some suggestions for things the government(s) could do to actually help business owners and Toronto residents.

Among her suggestions are tax reductions for individual health, wellness and fitness memberships (something the feds would have to take on), tax breaks for small businesses and putting funds toward advertising and marketing to support local restaurants, hair salons and, yes, gyms. You know, instead of spending money on "programs that are going to make the city money."

Shaw has received plenty of support in the comment section of her studio's post, but the way she frames the issue isn't one of small businesses vs. the city.

She wants to see governments work with entrepreneurs and offer better supports after an unprecedented health crisis.

"Why is the City of Toronto launching a city run and funded outdoor fitness program #ParkFitTO just when I’m finally allowed to start offering these services to recoup my thousands lost?" reads the caption of her video post.

"These programs undercut mine, pay their trainers less and directly compete with small fitness businesses at a time when we are not on equal footing.... Not helpful, thoughtful or fair."

Lead photo by

Soul Fuel Fitness

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