By the time Pamela Dean decided to move her workout space from her office to the garage of her West Seattle home amid the pandemic, sporting goods stores had sold out of compression mats — the sturdy, 3/4-inch thick pads used to protect floors from weights. So Dean drove 60 miles to Tractor Supply Company in Olympia to buy something she says has worked just as well: 4-by-6-foot horse stall mats.

With gyms and fitness centers closed or operating at partial capacity for almost a year because of COVID-19 restrictions, fitness buffs have been hard at work carving out exercise spaces in their homes. Instead of spacious dance halls, tranquil yoga studios and carpeted weight rooms, they’re working up a sweat in their guest rooms, basements, garages, living rooms and even dining areas.

Fitness coach Jen Mullholand and her husband do yoga in a guest room in their home in the Hillman City neighborhood of Seattle, with mats squeezed in between a bed, a dresser and their pet rabbit’s cage.

“My husband says if he’d known how long this was going to last, we’d have found a new house — one with an office and a workout space,” Mullholand says. Instead, they’ve set up some dumbbells, kettlebells and pullup rings in their garage, which she describes as “really cold.”

Despite dampness and cold, basements and garages have been prime choices for many homeowners looking for a space to pursue their fitness goals. Sturdy overhead beams, often conveniently exposed, are great for attaching chin-up bars. And there’s usually some space for bulky equipment.

West Seattle resident Pamela Dean (right) resorted to using horse stall mats in her garage workout space since regular mats were sold out at sporting goods store. But it’s been worth it. “To see [my kids’] excitement as they experiment with different movements and equipment is inspiring,” she says. (Courtesy of Pamela Dean)
West Seattle resident Pamela Dean (right) resorted to using horse stall mats in her garage workout space since regular mats were sold out at sporting goods store. But it’s been worth it. “To see [my kids’] excitement as they experiment with different movements and equipment is inspiring,” she says. (Courtesy of Pamela Dean)
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Dean, a clinical neurophysiologist, embraced fitness later in life after an unathletic childhood. She says she wasn’t going to let the pandemic slow her down. 

“At first, we pulled out some old equipment and made space in the basement, which I also use as my home office,” she says. She did online workouts with instructors from the gym where she is a member. “Unfortunately, the basement has a really low ceiling, and when we did overhead weights in CrossFit, I had to be careful.”

After a few months in the basement, Dean and her husband decided to clear out their garage and create a more serious workout space for the couple and their three children, ages 4, 9 and 13.

“It’s a work in progress,” Dean says. “It’s the ugliest room in my house, and yet it’s my favorite. The kids ask to go out there after dinner. To see their excitement as they experiment with different movements and equipment is inspiring.”

Shalimar Gonzales, the CEO of the social services organization Solid Ground and a certified CrossFit instructor, knew she needed a replacement for the three gyms where she had taught and worked out before COVID-19 restrictions closed them. She and her partner transformed the basement of their Hillman City home, buying a rowing machine, a spin bike, a weight system, a battle rope and kettlebells.

“It’s become a bit of an obsession,” she says. “We ended up clearing out half of the basement.”

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As an experienced trainer, Gonzales had safety considerations in mind when she set up her basement gym. It includes easy-to-clean mats, air purifiers and fans.

Lara Bain recently celebrated her 100th ride on the Peloton bike that she keeps in a narrow storage area in her Shoreline home. (Courtesy of Lara Bain)
Lara Bain recently celebrated her 100th ride on the Peloton bike that she keeps in a narrow storage area in her Shoreline home. (Courtesy of Lara Bain)

Lara Bain, who works for a Seattle-based tech company, finds sanctuary in the narrow storage area of her Shoreline home where she and her husband keep their Peloton bike. The bike’s interactive screen displays live or pre-recorded rides with Peloton coaches.

“There’s no window in the room, but I’ll turn off the lights and it has the feel of being in a dark in-person cycle class,” Bain says. She often coordinates with friends for “group rides” that take advantage of Peloton’s chat feature

People used to getting their exercise on the dance floor had to do some quick stepping when the pandemic closed studios and dance clubs. Fortunately, many Zumba and Nia instructors, as well as teachers at the NW Dance Network, put their classes online.

Cat Cuevas, a leadership and organizational consultant, still does swing and blues dancing with her husband. But now it’s in the living room of their Ballard home.

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“Fortunately, our living room is a great space to dance or work out,” she says. “We have a wood floor, so we roll up the rug and dance barefoot.” 

Cat Cuevas has been able to continue teaching classes at Seven Star Women’s Kung Fu via video from her Ballard home. She says the wood floors in her living room are also great for swing and blues dancing with her husband. (Courtesy of Cat Cuevas)
Cat Cuevas has been able to continue teaching classes at Seven Star Women’s Kung Fu via video from her Ballard home. She says the wood floors in her living room are also great for swing and blues dancing with her husband. (Courtesy of Cat Cuevas)

Cuevas is continuing her work as a teaching assistant for Seven Star Women’s Kung Fu. Its Central District studio is closed, but she is both attending and teaching online classes from home. She plugs her laptop into her TV to get a bigger view of students and other teachers. 

How does someone practice Kung Fu without a sparring partner? “You have to use your imagination,” Cuevas says. Stand-ins for sparring partners have included stuffed animals, couch cushions, office chairs and even a cat’s scratching post.

“We’ve broken a couple things,” she admits. “Sometimes I think of my mom saying, ‘Don’t do that in the house!’ ”

Gary Clark, a property manager for Sound Transit, and his wife, Heidi Katerina Clark, were accustomed to daily 5 a.m. workouts at a gym near their Lynnwood condo. When the gym shut down, they tried to pivot to working out at home. But they faced two problems: Their garage was already being used for cars and storage, and local sporting goods stores had sold out of weights and cages (the sturdy framework that holds weights and barbells during workouts). 

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“We started with a Gym Master heavy-duty pullup bar and installed it on a door frame in the dining room,” Clark says. They found stretchable tubing, the type used for physical therapy, and attached it to the bar to do resistance exercises. 

Later, they ordered a weightlifting cage directly from its Chinese manufacturer and had it shipped to their home, with plans to add to their workout space in the dining room. When the massive rig arrived, it required not just moving their dining room furniture, but clearing out the room altogether. 

When his regular gym closed, Gary Clark of Lynnwood hung a simple pullup bar in the doorway to his dining room. Later, he turned over the entire room to a huge weightlifting cage. (Courtesy of Gary Clark)
When his regular gym closed, Gary Clark of Lynnwood hung a simple pullup bar in the doorway to his dining room. Later, he turned over the entire room to a huge weightlifting cage. (Courtesy of Gary Clark)

“Equipment isn’t just in our dining room now — it is our dining room,” Clark says. “We now have 2,000 pounds of weights in there. And a compression mat, so if you drop weights you don’t dent the flooring.”

Home exercise spaces are significantly different from professionally designed and maintained gyms and studios. Cuevas reminds her Kung Fu students to watch out for slippery floors, sharp furniture edges and curious pets that can get underfoot.

And while going to the gym used to mean automatically getting away from distractions — such as kids, pets, spouses and texts from your boss — home gyms still leave you right in the middle of it. Making time for a good workout often requires deliberate steps to get into the right mindset.

Clark depends on earbuds and a good playlist to put him in the right space. Gonzales equipped her home gym with a Sonos speaker and plays ’90s hip-hop and R&B. Cuevas takes a minute to sweep the floor in preparation for a Kung Fu session, and she appreciates that her teachers start each class with a short meditation.

“It’s important,” she says, “to take the time to transform your space.”