- Gyms aren’t free of COVID-19 risks, due to the fact that most people won’t be wearing a mask while they exercise.
- One infectious disease expert explains how shared equipment also may influence risk factors, including the role that locker rooms and amenities play.
- You can work to lower risks in a gym by washing your hands and bringing disinfectants, among other precautions.
official reopening guidelines in April, encouraging them to reopen as long as they “adhere to strict physical distancing and sanitation protocols.” But as gyms are reopening in states across the nation — they first opened in Georgia on April 24, and more than 30 states have reopened (or are planning to) gyms and spas this month, according to The New York Times — some may be concerned that the intimate nature of a gym makes it hard to social distance, not to mention all the physical activity on shared equipment.
Robyn Gershon, MHS, DrPH, a clinical professor of epidemiology at New York University’s School of Global Public Health, says gyms and health clubs are spearheading new social distancing measures and upped sanitization schedules — but most are doing so with limited direction from state leadership, as recent federal guidelines for reopening businesses do not address gyms directly. One local business in Atlanta asks customers to sanitize their hands, have their temperatures taken, and sign a “COVID release form” before they even enter the gym, per an Associated Press report. These kinds of precautions certainly reduce risks, but Gershon explains that gyms won’t have uniform guidelines to follow. In fact, when you have a group of people heavily panting on shared exercise equipment in a small, confined space, it’s unlikely that gyms will be able to address all the possible risks.
“I think gyms are problematic for a lot of reasons,” she says. “Unless it’s a really large gym, I don’t see how you could totally avoid [being within six feet of one another]. Ultimately, the decision is up to you and your individual level of risk tolerance. For some, the gym is such an integral part of their life that missing it is worse to them than taking that chance.”
Many of these risks can be avoided by working out at home — or finding a public outdoor space where you can exercise instead. But if you can’t or are unwilling to avoid gyms, Gershon offers ways to better keep yourself healthy during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
What are the risks of going to the gym during the pandemic?
Gershon says the likelihood of you contracting SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that leads to a coronavirus diagnosis) largely depends on how many people are inside the gym, the room’s airflow, and how often the exercise machines are used and disinfected, which can all be influenced by how big the space is in the first place.
- Minimal face mask usage. Because everyone is working out in a shared indoor space, ideally people would be covering their faces, says Gershon. It’s nearly impossible while exercising, though. “It’s hard to work out with a face mask on; I notice that a lot of runners here in New York City don’t wear masks, and generally the bikers don’t, and I think it’s because it’s just very hard. It can be hard to walk in a face mask,” Gershon admits. Because face masks aren’t likely in use at your gym, there’s nothing to prevent someone who may be unknowingly affected by SARS-CoV-2 from spewing infectious droplets into the air around them as they exercise.
- Shared air supply. Even if you managed to keep exactly six feet apart from everyone in your gym, minimal airflow in a room could increase the risk of inhaling infectious airborne particles — which might be already higher in a gym because people aren’t covering their faces. Gershon advises against spending more than 30 minutes in a confined space with larger groups, as potentially infectious particles can linger within most rooms in that time period. Furthermore, there may be a risk associated with air conditioning and spreading viral particles through HVAC units, which scientists are studying now after an early CDC-sponsored study was released in April.
- Shared training and cardio equipment. Many health experts view gyms as vectors of seasonal germs and viruses on a regular basis because everyone inside is sharing the same equipment. During the pandemic, all the shared handles and weights feel even more risky than before. Plus, there are buttons and levers to touch and pull on most machines before you begin to use them. Previously conducted research established that SARS-CoV-2 can live on plastic and stainless steel for periods ranging between 3 and 7 days in certain conditions, and on wood for up to 2 days. Touching these shared surfaces and then your face or other entry points into the body is a transmission risk.
- Communal resources in tight quarters. Some gyms may be quite large, making it easier to keep everyone six feet apart by blocking off machines and establishing walking plans to keep people from walking into each other. But almost all locker rooms and bathrooms come with highly-trafficked surfaces in close quarters, requiring almost constant sanitation between users to keep risks low. It’s unclear if showers or other amenities will still be offered in gyms, but those kinds of services could provide additional risks.
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How to lower risks while working out in gyms
Regardless of why you’re heading to a gym — to do yoga in a studio, hop on a spin bike, or jog on the treadmill — there are a few ways you can work to lower any risks of contracting COVID-19.
- Wash your hands when you can, and bring hand sanitizer. Because people tend to touch their faces when they exercise (to wipe away sweat or tuck hair out of sight), keeping your hands as clean as possible is essential during your workout session. You can bring a towel into the gym with you to wipe away anything on your face, as Gershon says you want to avoid touching your eyes, mouth, or nose while in public. Be sure to use only one side of a towel before carefully placing it back into a bag, as you don’t want to touch it with contaminated hands and then rub that side into your face or eyes.
- Wear gloves when handling weights and other equipment. “Some people in gyms already wear gloves because they like to lift weights with those special weight-lifting gloves on — I think that makes sense,” Gershon says. If you’re able to put on a pair of gloves while you work out, it might keep you from tracking all the germs living on those surfaces back onto your belongings, like a cell phone or a car steering wheel. You’ll need to properly store the gloves after you take them off (in a sealed plastic bag, for example, before they’re cleaned) and then wash your hands immediately before leaving the gym.
- Bring disinfectants and sanitizers for the equipment. It’s clear that most gyms will be upping their cleaning routines to keep customers as safe as possible. But bringing disinfectant wipes (or asking for them) can ensure that you’re properly disinfecting plastic or metal surfaces before you touch them. Don’t forget: Most disinfectant wipes require you to keep surfaces wet for upwards of five minutes in order to eliminate all viruses, including SARS-CoV-2.
- Skip the bathroom and locker room. Unless your gym introduces new policies to promote social distancing precautions, you’ll be sharing these tight quarters with people who are not wearing masks. Wait until you’ve returned home to change out of your clothes or to use the restroom if at all possible.
- Ask your gym for a reservation time. Some gyms and health clubs are pivoting to a reduced capacity setting where they offer pre-determined sessions for clients in certain locations, Gershon says. You might be able to book a one-hour session on a elliptical machine in a controlled environment (less than 10 people) just by calling and asking. Going to the gym at a time when many others aren’t could significantly reduce risks associated with large crowds in closed spaces. And if your gym isn’t offering this to clients yet, opening up a conversation might signal to them that clients are interested in this option.
As the coronavirus pandemic develops, some of the information in this story may have changed since it was last updated. For the most up-to-date information on COVID-19, please visit the online resources provided by the CDC, WHO, and your local public health department. You can work tobetter protect yourself from COVID-19 by washing your hands, avoiding contact with sick individuals, and sanitizing your home, among other actions.
Associate Health Editor
Zee Krstic is a health editor for GoodHousekeeping.com, where he covers the latest in health and nutrition news, decodes diet and fitness trends, and reviews the best products in the wellness aisle.
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