With gyms closed, exercise enthusiasts across the nation have kept up with their fitness regimens by switching to online workouts, running and making use of household objects. Now gyms are preparing to reopen, and some fitness buffs will be able to return to in-person instruction and commercial-grade equipment. But should they?
Right now, the gym is a “high-risk environment,” says Jose Jimenez, a University of Colorado at Boulder chemistry professor who studies coronavirus transmission. Being in a densely populated space for a significant period increases your risk, he says, particularly if the ventilation is suboptimal.
Many Americans, too, remain leery of the gym; a recent Washington Post-University of Maryland national poll found that 78% of respondents think gyms should remain closed.
White House guidelines permit gyms to operate “if they adhere to strict physical distancing and sanitation protocols.” However, the details are unclear, leaving much room for interpretation by state and local governments. In Florida, for example, gyms can operate only at 50% capacity and as long as they adopt “appropriate social distancing measures”; in Arkansas, there is no capacity rule, but patrons must be 12 feet apart.
In Washington state, gym reopenings will be gradual. Personal training and small-group fitness classes of five people or less can resume in the second phase of Gov. Jay Inslee’s reopening. The instructor must, however, conduct a safety briefing or show a safety video at the beginning of every session that asks everyone to maintain social distancing and enforce new safety protocols. Starting in the third phase, gyms can open at less than 50% capacity. (Find more details here.)
As with states, gyms’ own policies will vary. Life Time, with 152 fitness clubs across the United States, created a 400-plus page safety manual under the guidance of a physician who has served as a state epidemiologist, according to Life Time spokesperson Jason Thunstrom. Although Pennsylvania hasn’t yet allowed gyms to open, Dana Auriemma, the owner of Freehouse Fitness Studio in Philadelphia, is taking cues on how to proceed wherever they’re available – watching guidelines coming from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Pennsylvania governor, other states, and studios with a national presence. “It’s really such a moving target, as things roll out, that it kind of requires our full-time attention,” Auriemma said.
The decision to return to the gym is personal, based on your own cost-benefit analysis. Geoff Dreher, a Johns Hopkins sports medicine physician who encourages moderate exercise for the physical and mental benefits, says you should “ask yourself if you need the gym for those exercise benefits.” If so, he suggests proceeding with caution. Here are factors to consider.
Cases in your area
Consider avoiding the gym if coronavirus cases are escalating in your region. “[If] you’re seeing a big spike, maybe wait that one out,” says Saskia Popescu, senior infection prevention epidemiologist at George Mason University. She stresses that we all play a role in stopping the spread. “Staying home is important if you have a lot of community transmission,” she said.
Your own health
No matter what policies your gym adopts, show up only if you’re completely healthy. If you are feeling sick, experiencing any flu-like symptoms, running a fever, short of breath, or frequently coughing or sneezing, Dreher says to “stay away,” particularly if you’re over 60, are immunocompromised or have chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease or high blood pressure.
Additionally, you should avoid the gym if you have a greater chance in your life of being exposed, Popescu says. That includes living or working with someone who has tested positive for covid-19.
According to Thunstrom, Life Time takes every employee’s temperature as they begin their shift and will send anyone home who has a reading of 100.4 or above, per CDC guidelines.
Denise Chakoian, the owner of Core, a boutique fitness studio in Providence, Rhode Island, will require clients to undergo touchless temperature readings when her facility reopens.
Whether you’re at a big-box facility or a boutique studio, plenty of space is key, particularly because exercise requires vigorous breathing. According to Dreher, the more force behind your exhalations, the greater the distance your respiratory droplets can travel – potentially farther than six feet.
A recent CDC research letter reviewed data on covid-19 spread in dance and fitness classes. The authors hypothesized that both the turbulent airflow generated by intense exercise and the density in dance classes contributed to virus spread. Given what we know about coronavirus transmission, Jimenez says, the findings are “not surprising.”
Life Time is capping classes at 50% capacity, spacing cardio machines at least six feet apart and placing dots on the floor to remind members to maintain six feet of distance otherwise. Similarly, Auriemma anticipates reducing maximum class capacity by about half and will station equipment such as yoga mats and Pilates reformers at least six feet apart. She’ll also decrease the number of classes and stagger start times to minimize lobby crowding.
You can also limit your exposure by shortening your stay. “I recommend avoiding as much shared space as you can,” Dreher says. Consider queuing up your playlist or podcast before entering the building, stretching outside, or substituting your indoor warm-up or cool-down with an outdoor jog or walk. Many states that have allowed gyms to open are keeping locker rooms closed; even if yours is open, he suggests changing clothes and showering at home to lessen your risk of exposure.
If you must work out indoors, proper ventilation is crucial. According to Popescu, HVAC systems should have adequate air turnover rates and appropriate filters. Ask your gym whether its HVAC system is operational. “Places like garage gyms with limited ventilation and, like, a single fan lack true ventilation and filtration that comes with HVAC systems,” Popescu says.
Jimenez emphasizes the distinction between ventilating and mixing. A well-ventilated space circulates fresh air; mixing circulates the same air, such as when a fan blows air through a room with no outside ventilation, and “is actually worse than zero ventilation or fan.” He cites a covid-19 outbreak documented by the CDC in which a restaurant air-conditioning unit was thought to have spread the virus, suggesting that poor ventilation was a factor.
Jimenez says systems that disinfect the air with ultraviolet light are also helpful. Although Rhode Island is among the 20 states where gyms remain closed, Chakoian recently added ultraviolet coils to her HVAC system in response to the coronavirus.
While masks offer some protection, they’re “really about source control,” Popescu says. In other words, they prevent the wearer from spreading the virus but are less effective in guarding the wearer from infection.
All three experts recommend masks when exercising indoors but understand that there are drawbacks.
The N95 mask gives the most protection, but when worn correctly, it’s extremely tight, making breathing during exercise very difficult. Moreover, Popescu says, it’s designed for medical professionals and requires specific testing to ensure a proper fit.
A cloth mask should cover your mouth and nose. Popescu recommends an adjustable mask “to make sure it’s snug and not falling down.” Dreher suggests exercising at about half your normal intensity as you get accustomed to a mask. Reducing your effort may also reduce moisture levels in the fabric. According to Popescu, a wet mask is less likely to function effectively.
While Life Time requires staff to wear masks at all times, members are required to don them only while receiving a spa service. Core will require both clients and staff to wear masks in the facility.
While touching surfaces and objects is not considered high-risk, proper cleaning is important. “I’m not really worried about the sweat on your bike. I’m more concerned about if you were coughing and sneezing on your bike,” Popescu says. That said, there’s a lack of data on whether the virus is transmitted through sweat.
Popescu says facilities should use disinfecting products from the Environmental Protection Agency’s List N; you can ask your gym what it’s using. Keep an eye on how the cleaning is being done; in addition to gyms selecting appropriate disinfectants (not sanitizers), it’s vital that they adhere to recommended wet times or contact times, which can be up to three minutes. “If you wipe it down and it dries in like two seconds, that means you need to do it again,” using significantly more fluid, Popescu says.
Thunstrom said that Life Time is offering additional cleaning products for member use, and that its clubs are doubling staffing levels to ensure proper disinfection of equipment and surfaces. At Freehouse Fitness, instead of the typical 10-minute gap between classes, Auriemma will allow 40 minutes to give her staff time to disinfect the room and the equipment.
No matter what precautions your facility takes, always wash your hands well and frequently, and avoid touching your face. Explains Popescu, “If you’re coughing and you cough in your hand, your hand is dirty, so you should clean that [before you] . . . go touch all the gym equipment.”
Some facilities are taking steps to minimize touching as much as possible. Auriemma replaced lockers with cubbies, while Chakoian is making lockers inaccessible and requiring clients to pay online to avoid passing credit cards back and forth.
Popescu encourages people to do their homework. She suggests not just asking what safety precautions your gym is taking but also being aware of whether its policies align with your observations. “If it doesn’t feel right, trust your gut.”
Moore is a Boulder-based freelance writer, speaker, marathoner, Ironman triathlete and group fitness instructor.