Will It Ever Be Safe to Go Back to the Gym?

Will It Ever Be Safe to Go Back to the Gym?

As some fitness centers reopen, public health experts cringe

After weeks of YouTube workouts and at-home exercise routines, fitness enthusiasts in many parts of the country will soon (if they don’t already) have the opportunity to return to the gym.
Decisions about when and how businesses can reopen are being made by state and local leaders, but thanks in part to lobbying by the fitness club industry, gyms are included in the businesses that the White House Guidelines for Opening Up America Again recommends reopening first — provided they “adhere to strict physical distancing and sanitation protocols.”
But even under strict sanitation protocols, can facilities where people congregate to sweat and breathe heavily in confined spaces using shared equipment actually be safe during the coronavirus pandemic?
That depends on whom you ask.
“Open businesses, open gyms, open the outdoors! Let people do what makes them healthy and happy!” tweeted International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) VP of communications Meredith Poppler on May 12. The IHRSA has contacted state governors across the United States, asking them to reopen fitness clubs, and stressing that club operators are “ready, willing, and proactively wanting to work in partnership with state officials on reopening plans.” (Poppler declined my phone interview request.)
Not so fast, say public health experts. “It doesn’t make sense that indoor gyms are included in the first round of reopening,” says Leana Wen, MD, an ER physician, visiting professor of public health at George Washington University, and former Baltimore city health commissioner. The risks from heavy breathing in a confined space are simply too great right now, she adds.
“I don’t want people to get the wrong message and think that reopening means everything is fine…Nothing about the virus has actually changed.”
Ask the gym about their procedures, and bring disinfectant wipes with you to thoroughly wipe down any surface before and after you touch it. Finally, don’t linger.
Making a decision based on science
With many places opening up against public health guidance, you can’t assume that simply because something is now allowed, it has also been deemed safe. For instance, gyms in Texas were allowed to reopen in mid-May, just a week after the state set new daily records for both new cases and deaths. (The CDC’s guidelines specify that the first phase of reopening should only happen after a downward trajectory or near-zero incidence of documented cases over a 14-day period.)
Before you head back to the gym, look at your state or county public health department website and examine the data on your state and your community, recommends George Mason University infection prevention epidemiologist Saskia Popescu, PhD. “Do you see a downward trend [in cases]? Is it a consistent decrease for a number of weeks, or are you seeing a roller coaster? You want to see a continued downward trend for at least a couple of weeks,” she says.
But even a downward trend in cases doesn’t mean that a gym workout is safe. Numerous factors determine the riskiness of a particular place or activity, such as how close people are to each other and for how long, how many people come into contact, and whether they are touching common surfaces, says Katherine Baicker, PhD, dean at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy. Using anonymized cellphone data, Baicker and her colleagues found that compared to some businesses, like fast-food restaurants, “Gyms have fewer visitors per square foot, but visitors linger, increasing the chance that they’ll interact and speed the virus,” as they wrote recently in the New York Times.
A research letter from South Korea scheduled for publication in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases identified clusters of Covid-19 after the disease had been transmitted at dance classes with five to 22 students in a room of about 645 square feet during intense exercise lasting 50 minutes. “The moist, warm atmosphere in a sports facility coupled with turbulent air flow generated by intense physical exercise can cause more dense transmission of isolated droplets,” the authors wrote.
While we don’t have any research on the transmission of Covid-19 in U.S. gyms, studies like Baicker’s and the one from South Korea suggest that fitness facilities could pose a high risk of transmission and will require mitigation to make them safe to open.
When it comes to safety, gym owners and members have to work together
“There are smart ways to reopen and ways to turn any gym into one big incubator,” says Michael Joyner, MD, a physiologist and physician at the Mayo Clinic. Keeping gyms safe will require limiting the number of people inside, ensuring that exercisers can keep an adequate distance, and taking care to disinfect shared equipment between users.
Fitness centers have an obvious interest in protecting the health of their clients, but right now there aren’t any standardized national guidelines on what they should do.
Some states, like Texas, have created their own protocols, and the IHRSA as well as gym chains such as Equinox have created frameworks for reopening that include things like screening for symptoms, reducing capacity, staggering class schedules, regular cleaning and disinfection of common areas and gear, and taking steps to facilitate social distancing by, for instance, rearranging equipment.
Brett Ewer, government affairs lead for CrossFit, says he’s “contacted all 50 states and Washington, D.C., to ask them to issue guidelines that boxes (CrossFit gyms) can adhere to.” His organization hasn’t issued any guidelines themselves. “Ultimately I would say that boxes should adhere to what state and local governments are saying,” Ewer says.
Gym lovers are also anxious to see the facilities reopen, but everyone wants it to happen safely and that will require diligence from users too.
If you do decide to go, you can reduce your risk in a few ways. Most ideal would be to find a place that offers an outdoor space for working out, Wen says, acknowledging that this may be impractical in many places.
If you can’t move outdoors, you want to be sure that the area has good ventilation (ideally open windows and fans) and a low density of people so you can keep your distance from other exercisers. Also, stay out of the locker room, make sure that shared equipment is cleaned before and after use. Ask the gym about their procedures, and bring disinfectant wipes with you to thoroughly wipe down any surface before and after you touch it. Finally, don’t linger.
If you or someone in your household is immunocompromised or otherwise at heightened risk from Covid-19, now is not the time to return to the gym. And if you’re coughing or sneezing for any reason — even if it’s just allergies — stay home, Popescu says.
“There are so many other ways to maintain your fitness. You have to ask yourself: What problem are you trying to solve by going to the gym?”
Putting the risks and benefits into perspective
None of the public health experts I talked with expressed any willingness to step foot in a gym any time soon. “I’m going to continue doing my stay-at-home stuff,” Popescu says. She has friends who own gyms that she’d love to use right now, but right now she feels more comfortable working out in her house and yard. “Just because gyms reopen doesn’t mean you have to go.”
Wen says she “truly believes in the merits of exercise,” but “even as someone who went to the gym virtually every day, I couldn’t imagine going now.” Which is not to say that her decision doesn’t pain her. The gym “was the place I went to reduce stress and keep in shape, so I feel this acutely.”
At the end of the day, you need to put the risks and benefits into perspective, Joyner says. “There are so many other ways to maintain your fitness. You have to ask yourself: What problem are you trying to solve by going to the gym?”
Whether you’re going to the gym to get fit or to socialize, there are probably safer ways to meet your goal. If you want to support your gym and help it stay in business, you can continue to pay membership fees and look for paid programming you can sign up for, like remote classes.

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