For much of the coronavirus pandemic, public health experts have flagged gyms and fitness studios as potentially high-risk environments for transmission, pointing to the virus’s ability to easily spread between people who are breathing heavily in poorly ventilated spaces. Now, with more than half the eligible population at least partially protected from the virus, many fitness enthusiasts are wondering whether it’s safe to go back.
Yes, experts say, with some caveats. The risk of gyms and indoor workout classes can be lower as long as various safety measures are in place — and being vaccinated can be a game-changer. If you are one of the millions of Americans who are fully vaccinated, some experts are encouraging a return to a somewhat normal workout routine, citing concerns about the pandemic’s impact on mental health and weight gain.
“We’re doing things that are higher risk now because we can and I think that it’s important to realize that our mental health is equally as important as our physical health, and resuming some of these normal activities is a part of that,” said Kelly Gebo, a professor of medicine and an infectious-disease expert at Johns Hopkins University. “But being safe while doing it is also a part of it.”
Gebo and other experts offered recommendations for assessing the risk of indoor workout spaces, taking into account your vaccination status, and tips for staying safe if you choose to return.
— Consider your vaccination status
People who receive any one of the three coronavirus vaccines authorized in the United States should feel confident about how effective the shots are once immunity has time to build up (which typically takes two weeks after the final shot), said Monica Gandhi, a professor of medicine and an infectious-disease expert at the University of California, San Francisco.
Gandhi said that as soon as her parents, who are elderly, were two weeks past their second doses, she encouraged them to go back to the gym. “That’s how comfortable I was with the vaccine effectiveness with my own parents,” said Gandhi, who also resumed her regular gym workouts after she was vaccinated.
For vaccinated people, “this is a really good time to go back,” she said. “We’re really in a state where probably nothing could be more effective than these vaccines, even in the setting of cases still occurring in the United States, at protecting us against COVID.”
But it’s important to remember that vaccination doesn’t mean zero risk, said Abinash Virk, an infectious-disease physician at the Mayo Clinic.
The country, Virk said, is in a “transition zone,” and the mix of people with differing vaccination statuses means that inside a fitness center you could find yourself in a “hybrid situation where the majority of the people are not going to be vaccinated.” And, Gebo pointed out, you probably won’t know the vaccination statuses of the people around you.
Without adequate risk-mitigation efforts and vaccinated clientele, gyms and workout classes remain “fairly risky indoor spaces,” according to Richard Corsi, an indoor-air-quality expert and dean of the Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science at Portland State University.
“Gyms can be much more problematic than many other indoor spaces,” Corsi wrote in an email, noting that “the best case scenario is for all those who use the gym to be fully vaccinated” and for fitness spaces to have additional precautions, such as increased ventilation.
If you aren’t vaccinated, it comes down to “risk tolerance,” Gebo said. “If you are a lower-risk person, you may decide that your mental health is worth it.”
— Know what gyms should be doing
Many gyms and fitness studios are following recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and taking “a layered approach” to risk reduction, Cedric Bryant, president and chief science officer for the American Council on Exercise (ACE), wrote in an email. This includes enforcing universal masking and physical distancing, increasing cleaning and disinfecting, promoting hand hygiene, and improving ventilation and air filtration.
Bryant emphasized that “a properly ventilated space is one mitigation strategy that is very important to creating a safer environment when gathering indoors, especially for exercise or physical activity purposes.”
Ideally, indoor fitness spaces should have a high turnover of air, said Linsey Marr, an aerosol expert at Virginia Tech who studies the airborne transmission of viruses. Air inside should be replaced by fresh air from outdoors “every 10 minutes at least, if not more frequently,” depending on how many people are in the space, Marr said.
Corsi agreed. Gyms with mechanical ventilation systems should open outdoor air dampers as much as possible and upgrade filters to the highest MERV rating the system can handle, he wrote.
Improved ventilation can also be achieved by opening doors and windows on opposite sides of the space, said Marr, who helped her CrossFit gym optimize air flow. The ventilation measures implemented by Marr’s gym probably played a major part in preventing an outbreak after one of the coaches tested positive last year, Insider reported.
If fans are being used, Marr recommended positioning them in open doors or windows, blowing out. Fans pointing toward people indoors could blow air from an infected person directly to another person.
— Ask questions and be observant
The best way to find out whether your fitness center has adequate safety measures is to ask or, if you feel comfortable, visit in person, Bryant wrote.
Ask about masking and screening policies and what’s being done to increase distancing, hygiene and ventilation, experts said. Bryant noted that ACE partnered with the Coalition for the Registration of Exercise Professionals and published a guide that includes questions to ask and factors to consider when returning to in-person physical activity.
A red flag is “if somebody gets really defensive” when you’re asking questions or isn’t willing to answer them, Gebo said.
It’s also important to observe whether facilities are actually implementing the safety measures they say they are. For example, check that staff and patrons are wearing masks properly, and that equipment has been blocked off or spaced out and there are markings on the floor to keep people apart.
While proper mask use, distancing and hygiene can be easy to spot, it’s much harder to assess air quality, Marr said. One clear sign to be concerned about is if you can smell other people. “That means that respiratory aerosols could be building up in the air, too,” she said. Corsi added that fragrances and air fresheners could be an indication of a gym trying to mask smells to hide subpar ventilation.
In larger spaces, you should also be able to feel some air movement, Gandhi said. “If you do not feel that the air is circulating, trust your judgment and don’t go to that gym.”
— Consider taking extra precautions yourself
In a gym or workout class setting, risk varies depending on the environment, how many people are around you and what activity you’re doing.
Staying masked while doing lower-intensity exercises alone such as walking on a treadmill or lifting weights in a large, well-ventilated gym will be less risky than attending a group spin class in a cramped, windowless studio, Gebo said.
If you’re concerned about ventilation or are unvaccinated, consider working out near an open window, avoid crowded peak hours and try to stay out of the locker rooms, experts advised.
Although the risk of contracting the coronavirus from surface transmission is low, you should wipe down gym equipment as you normally would in non-pandemic times, Gebo said, because other types of infections can be spread in fitness facilities. Gebo suggested bringing your own equipment, such as resistance bands or jump ropes.
While being vaccinated decreases risk, experts urged gymgoers to still follow safety protocols until more people can receive the shots. “We as Americans can be polite … and maintain the standards of the facility,” Gandhi said.