How long has it been since you’ve set foot inside an actual gym? In my case, it hasn’t happened since early March. Now, seven months later, these yoga classes in my living room are starting to get old (and I confess I haven’t stuck with them as consistently as I’d like). As communities gradually reopen, I have several friends who have started heading back to their routine indoor workout classes: barre, cycling, CrossFit, and the like.
Depending on where you live, gyms are indeed opening their doors again—hopefully with masks and social distancing strictly enforced. But in light of the recent CDC update acknowledging airborne transmission of COVID-19, it’s only right to wonder… is it possible to get infected at the gym, even with safety protocols in place?
Recent news of a virus outbreak at a Canadian spin studio confirmed some people’s fears. In mid-October, news broke that SPINCO in Hamilton, Ontario, had become the source of more than 60 COVID-19 infections, despite the studio’s efforts to comply with public health guidelines. They cut class sizes by half and required masks before and after working out (but not during). We wanted to know whether this meant indoor workouts are a no-go, so we asked several experts to weigh in.
How COVID Spreads
First off, a quick refresher on how COVID spreads. According to the CDC, the virus is transmitted primarily through respiratory droplets from an infected person’s nose or mouth. The closer you are to someone, for longer periods of time, the more likely you are to breathe in these viral particles and ultimately contract the illness.
Research has also shown that people are significantly more likely to contract COVID in indoor environments, especially in spaces with poor ventilation. “There is often less space indoors versus outdoors, we are breathing heavily, and there is less air dilution,” says Brandon Brown, Ph.D., associate professor at the Center for Healthy Communities at the University of California Riverside School of Medicine. During a cardio workout that leaves you gasping for air, you are taking in and expelling more air than usual.
The Spin Class Problem
Unfortunately, this super-spreader spin class in Canada combined a heavy cardio workout with optional mask-wearing during the class itself. This, says Neysa Ernst, nurse manager of the Johns Hopkins biocontainment unit in Baltimore, is probably where they went wrong—“the problem is the [mask] removal during the activity.”
It’s not surprising that people would want to take off their masks for a quick breather. “It’s human nature to feel hot and sweaty and say, ‘I’m just going to take my mask down and grab a drink of water,’” Ernst notes. But your best bet is to always keep your mask on indoors, and to go to a gym that requires everyone else to do the same. If that means abandoning your spin classes for yoga for the time being, so be it. “It’s not that people should not exercise, but they should really look at activities that reduce their risk,” Ernst suggests. The good news? You’ve got options.
Gym Safety Tips
Before you re-sign your gym membership, here’s what to keep in mind.
There’s always a risk. Unless you stay in your house isolated from others, there’s no way to keep yourself completely COVID safe. “You can reduce the risk, but you will never make it 0% because there is a human factor involved,” says Ali Mokdad, Ph.D., professor and Chief Strategy Officer of Population Health at the University of Washington in Seattle. Think of it like driving a car—no matter how alert you are, you can’t control the actions of strangers in your vicinity.
Your best bet is still your living room. Sorry to break this to you, quarantine gang, but at-home workouts are still your safest option. “Gyms are a hotspot for several reasons,” Brown says. “We are sweating, touching items and surfaces, breathing heavy and often talking loud, and sometimes grunting or yelling near others ... The safest space to work out indoors may be in your own home.” Try fitness apps like Peloton, Nike Training, or Glo, which all offer free or low-cost memberships to stream studio-quality classes at home.
If you do want to hit up the gym, check the COVID numbers in your community first. It matters just as much what’s happening outside your gym as inside, Mokdad explains. “I don’t think [going to a gym] is dangerous if—and this is a big if—the community has a low circulation of the virus,” he says. Think about it: the lower the likelihood your fellow gym-goers have COVID, the lower the likelihood you’ll catch it from them. If rates start to spike in your area, it might be time to give the gym a break for a few weeks.
Ask the gym staff questions about precautions. You can never be too informed! Ernst says that when choosing a gym that she felt safe to frequent this year, she asked lots of questions: “Are people constantly wiping down the machines? How does their staff manage someone who doesn’t want to wear a mask or get their temperature taken when they walk in?” These answers can tell you a lot about how seriously the pandemic is being taken.
Stick with activities you can do while wearing a mask. If you’re a runner, you might want to reserve your miles for the outdoors. “Get a mask that you’re comfortable working out in, but that you can’t blow a birthday candle out in,” Ernst says. And keep it on from when you walk in the door to when you walk out, even if it means lifting weights in a mask (so 2020 of you!).
Make sure everything you touch has been sanitized. This is a no-brainer and should be done even in non-pandemic times (no thank you, sweaty elliptical). But it’s more critical now than ever that you are wiping down equipment before and after each use.
Consider going during off-peak hours. Ask the gym staff what times they tend to be busiest, then try to plan your visit around that. Ernst suggests that gyms, like many grocery stores, should open additional hours just for high-risk folks to come work out. If you think they might be open to the idea, ask about it!
Do your part to protect others. We cannot stress this enough: Public health involves commitment from everyone. The more care you put into minimizing your day-to-day COVID risk, the less likely you’ll unknowingly pass the virus on to others at your gym. “Let’s say a gym has 500 members,” Mokdad says. “These 500 have to do their part not to get infected outside and come to the gym.” If hitting the gym in-person is a priority, you are responsible for doing your very best to keep that environment safe for everyone else.
As the days get shorter and colder, so many of us turn to exercise to keep our mental health in check. “All of us want to go back to our normal lives as soon as possible, especially in cold weather right now,” Mokdad says. “We want to be physically active.” And you shouldn’t be afraid to do so, just as long as you are paying close attention to your environment. “It comes down to three things: Wear your mask, watch your distance, wash your hands,” Mokdad suggests. After that, it’s up to you to make the decision that makes you feel comfortable and keeps you sane.