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July 20, 2020 -- Struggling with the quarantine 15 weight gain and ready to run to the gym? Or do you worry that an indoor workout in a hot, sweaty fitness center makes you more likely to catch COVID?

Science so far tells us that the novel coronavirus doesn’t spread through sweat. And, a widely cited Norwegian study, well-conducted but published before peer review, found no increase in COVID infections among gymgoers who regularly washed their hands and followed social distancing measures.

So, does that mean it’s safe to go to the gym? Not exactly.

The Norway study took place in a community with only a few coronavirus cases. It’s possible that gyms located in areas with higher rates of COVID could be riskier.

“There will be challenges with places like weight rooms and group fitness studios and other places where physical proximity is broken,” says Grant Baldwin, PhD, co-leader, CDC’s Community Interventions and At Risk Task Force, COVID-19 Response.

For example, South Korea in April linked a coronavirus outbreak to fitness dance classes at 12 different gyms. In a research letter in the August 2020 issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases, scientists that researched the outbreak said that intense physical exercise in crowded sports facilities could increase the risk of infection,

Such concerns about COVID are shifting attitudes about gym participation. About one in four Americans who worked out at least twice a week say they’ll never go to a gym again, according to a survey conducted by OnePoll on behalf of LifeAid Beverage Company.

In the United States, gyms in North Carolina and certain counties of Pennsylvania remain closed. Arizona has paused gym reopenings until late July, and California’s governor just rolled back gym reopenings due to new spikes in COVID cases. Yet, most states have allowed the reopening of gyms and fitness facilities with a variety of safety measures and limits on how many people can be inside.

Before You Go

When deciding what’s safe and what’s not for your family during the coronavirus outbreak, Baldwin suggests you check your local, state, and community orders and ask yourself some core COVID-19 questions.

  • Are you or anyone you live with over age 65 or at risk of severe illness? The risk of getting a serious infection from COVID-19 increases with age and certain medical conditions.
  • Do you and those you will be interacting with follow the same steps to prevent infection, such as wearing masks and washing hands?
  • Can you maintain 6 feet of social distance at the gym in a reasonable way?
  • How often will you need to share items? Sharing isn’t caring during a pandemic. As a rule, don’t share items, including free weights, barbells, resistance bands and yoga blocks. If you must, are you or the gym staff properly cleaning and disinfecting them between each use?
  • What’s the current level of COVID-19 spread in your community? “The lower the level of community transmission, the safer it is for you to go out,” says Baldwin.

Before you go, call the gym and ask if reservations or online check-ins are required. In some areas, state and local orders limit gym capacity to 50 to 75 percent.

Also consider your workout setting and class size. Cedric Bryant, PhD., president and chief science officer at the American Council on Exercise says at-home or outdoor exercises are the safest, if you can maintain 6 feet of distance.

One-on-one workouts with a trainer in a studio might be OK, too, when COVID safety measures are followed. High intensity exercise classes in confined spaces are the riskiest workouts during the pandemic. “That would be one of the activities, personally, that I would avoid at the gym right now,” Bryant tells WebMD’s chief medical officer John Whyte, MD.

While You’re There

Wondering if you need to pack a mask in your gym bag? The answer is yes, but you might not always need it. Masks can make it harder to breathe, and might limit your workout’s intensity.

“Any indoor classes that involve heavy physical exertion, wearing a cloth face covering is not advisable,” says Baldwin.

To protect yourself from catching COVID while at the gym, the World Health Organization and the CDC recommend following these tips:

  • Don’t go to the gym if you’re sick.
  • Limit indoor group classes, especially vigorous ones such as cycling, Zumba, and other high intensity programs. Low intensity classes, like Pilates and yoga, don’t appear to spread the coronavirus as much as high intensity classes.
  • Follow social distancing rules when entering and exiting the gym and when using the pool, walking/running tracks, locker rooms, and other shared areas.
  • Increase distancing as you increase the intensity of your workout. Vigorous activities like spin class increase the number of breaths you take, which could let more respiratory droplets to collect in a room.
  • Wear a face covering when entering and exiting the gym, or during low-exertion workouts.
  • Wipe down free weights, resistance bands, and gym equipment with disinfectant before use. You can catch COVID if you touch a contaminated surface and then touch your mouth, nose, or eyes. Gym staff should be cleaning items before and after each guest, but doing it again can’t hurt.
  • Bring your own resistance bands, yoga mat, and yoga blocks. Many gyms have removed these items.
  • Use hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol before using machines and other gym equipment.

Ready to go to the gym? Here are some of the things you’ll see at reopened exercise and fitness centers.

  • Plexiglass barriers at service and check-in counters.
  • Temperature checks and screening questions when you enter the gym.
  • No chairs or seating areas.
  • Hand sanitizer stations throughout the gym.
  • Face coverings on all staff.
  • Closed basketball, tennis, and other court areas that encourage groups to gather.
  • One-way running or walking tracks.
  • Closed showers, changing areas, and shared locker rooms.
  • Limits on workout times.
  • Use of one machine at a time – no circuit training.
  • Removal of resistance bands, hand weights, yoga mats and blocks.

When You Leave

The best way to prevent the spread of the coronavirus or any germs is to properly and regularly wash your hands. After touching any gym equipment, and when you get home, wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Or use hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. Toss your gym clothes in the washer, and don’t forget to disinfect any items you brought with you to the gym, such as yoga mats or resistance bands.

Show Sources

AARP: “List of Coronavirus-Related Restrictions in Every State.”

Cedric Bryant, PhD, president and chief science officer, American Council on Exercise.

Grant Baldwin, PhD, co-leader, CDC’s Community Interventions and At Risk Task Force, COVID-19 Response.

CDC: “Personal and Social Activities.”

Governor’s Strike Force to Open Texas: “Checklist for Gyms and Exercise Patrons.”

Twitter: CA Public Health, July 14, 2020

World Health Organization: “Transmission of SARS-CoV-2: Implications for Infection Prevention Precautions.”

Emerging Infectious Diseases: Cluster of Coronavirus Disease Associated with Fitness Dance Classes.

Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Coronavirus (COVID-19): Frequently Asked Questions.”

Self Esteem Brands: “Top Fitness Industry Owners Point to Scientific Evidence, Call on Governors to Keep Gyms Open - SE Brands.”

Press release, LifeAid.

NC Governor Roy Cooper: “Governor Cooper Signs Five Bills into Law, Vetoes Eight.”

TN Office of Governor: “Exercise Facilities Guidelines.”

IHRSA: “IHRSA Tells Consumers Gyms Are Clean, Safe, & Well-prepared.”

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