Is it safe to go to the gym or an exercise class? Here’s the research we have on fitness centers and the coronavirus.
As gyms in major metro areas like New York City have reopened, people are weighing whether it’s worth going back.
Research suggests that people may be able to resume gym workouts with limited risks.
The only published study on indoor exercise classes found more coronavirus infections connected to aerobic group workouts than a yoga class.
Wearing a mask, maintaining good hygiene, social distancing, and proper ventilation are important.
After nearly 6 months, indoor gyms in New York City are finally permitted to reopen, with strict safety precautions in place, and limited capacity.
While states like Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia and Florida reopened gyms months ago, some of the hardest-hit metro areas like New York City have postponed a return to business until now, as new case numbers have finally dropped to record lows.
But many people are still undecided about whether to venture back into the world for a workout, or cancel their gym memberships for good and continue their home fitness routine at home.
“Is it safe to go to the gym?” is one of the top-trending searches on Google. The answer is far from simple, though. It depends on where you live, what your risk tolerance is, what activities you’ll do, and how the people around you behave.
According to the latest research, it is possible to have a safer return to the gym, even if it’s not risk-free. To minimize your odds of infection during your next workout, consider community factors like transmission rates and case numbers, as well as the space you’re in, including how it’s ventilated, the spacing, and general hygiene.
There is some evidence gyms could reopen safely
There’s scant available data on gym reopenings.
To date, only one study has been conducted on gym reopenings. In June, researchers in Norway shared a study of 1,892 people who returned to five gym locations across Oslo in a two-week period, and none of the participants were infected with coronavirus.
There were caveats: It was a pre-print and not peer-reviewed, the time period was relatively short (since coronavirus symptoms can take weeks to appear), and Norway has controlled the virus better than many countries. Gym-goers also took precautions like hand-washing and distancing seriously, so according to researchers, regions where that’s not the case may face more risks re-opening gyms.
Reopening may not be so smooth in the US, which has the highest number of coronavirus cases in the world, and more controversy about safety measures, such as people refusing to wear masks and considered the pandemic to be an issue of politics more than of public health.
But one gym industry group in the US is optimistic, releasing a survey this week that suggests coronavirus transmission has been low in the gyms that have reopened.
Looking at 2,873 gyms that have reopened across the US, The International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) found that out of 49.3 million visits to the gym in three months, there were 1,155 gym members or staff who later tested positive for coronavirus. That’s about 1 person who tested positive for every 42,731 gym visits.
The survey did not specify the location of the gyms and the local rates of infection and case numbers, whic
h can drastically skew results. Relative risk will vary widely depending on how well, or poorly, the virus is currently being managed in your specific community.
Poor ventilation and heavy breathing are linked to viral spread
A major concern for re-opening gyms, as with all indoor activities, is air flow.
We don’t fully understand how viral particles might disperse from people breathing during exercise, according to available research, or whether the virus could spread via sweat. Experts, including at the World Health Organization, have acknowledged that the coronavirus might act differently indoors, allowing it to float six feet or more.
Recent research has shown that air conditioning and ventilation systems may disperse contagious aerosol, speeding the transmission of the virus through an indoor space. In the study, 56 cases of coronavirus were linked to one Starbucks location in South Korea, where an infected customer sat next to the air conditioning system in the poorly ventilated cafe.
Other studies have shown ventilation systems have been linked to viral infection in a restaurant and on a bus, when a single infected person’s contagious exhalations spread throughout the enclosed space.
Many gyms have addressed this by installing new air systems that filter or disinfect air contaminants and/or bring in fresh air from outside, to avoid recirculating potential contagions — a requirement in some areas, such as New York, before reopening.
Additional precautions, such as wearing a mask during your workout, keeping ample distance from other people, and even putting up barriers between workout stations, could also help.
The risks of indoor exercise classes
Research early in the pandemic suggested that the heavy breathing linked to aerobic exercise could spread viral particles more readily than less intense activities.
In the report from April, a dance fitness class in South Korea was linked to 112 cases of coronavirus.
The researchers found that yoga, by contrast, did not appear to be linked to any cases, leading them to surmise that slower, less strenuous activity could disperse fewer contagions.
Find the exercise setting that works best for you, mentally and physically
The benefits of exercise are clear. It’s great for physical, cognitive, and mental health, can help us age better over time, and is a fantastic method of stress relief.
But it’s up to each individual to weigh their personal risk and preferences, and decide whether to venture to the gym or stick to their modified at-home workout routines.
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