Why you should always wear a mask at the gym, according to new CDC research

Local and national public health officials now recommend wearing a mask at all times while inside a fitness studio or gym, especially during high-intensity exercise.

“The safest way to participate in indoor exercise is by maintaining physical distance and wearing a mask at all times,” said Dr. Fernando Urrego, the Hamilton County Health Department’s interim health officer. “If the intensity of the exercise makes it difficult to wear a mask, performing exercise outside away from others is a better option.”

In studies released last week by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, researchers traced COVID-19 outbreaks to gyms in Honolulu and Chicago where people were lax about wearing masks and had people who participated in high-intensity exercise classes after experiencing symptoms or testing positive for COVID-19.

In August 2020 health officials identified an outbreak of COVID-19 that was traced to a Chicago fitness facility where 68% of 81 people who attended high-intensity workout classes during one week contracted COVID-19. Among the attendees, 22 had symptoms on the day they attended class or after, according to the Weekly Morbidity and Mortality Report released by the CDC last week.

Researchers also traced COVID-19 clusters to three fitness facilities in Honolulu in July 2020.

A fitness instructor who taught classes at two facilities before experiencing symptoms or testing positive for COVID-19 was linked to 21 cases, including another fitness instructor who taught at a third facility. That instructor was hospitalized in intensive care.

Combined, the two instructors infected 95% of people who participated in their classes over the course of three days.

The classes in which the spread occurred were stationary cycling classes in which no one wore a mask, and the instructor shouted encouragement at participants. Infection occurred despite the fact that the instructor and participants were all more than 6 feet away from one another.

Based on the findings in the CDC reports, health officials recommend wearing masks when exercising even while maintaining a distance of six feet. They also advise that indoor fitness facilities increase ventilation.

Tips to stay safe and prevent spread of COVID-19 at the gym

*Maintain at least 6 feet of separation and avoid close contact.

*Select facilities that require all staff and attendees to wear a mask.

*Limit high-intensity activities to the outdoors.

*Wipe down equipment before and after use.

*Go during off-peak times to avoid crowding.

*Wash hands often.

*Most importantly, wear a mask.

Source: Dr. Fernando Urrego, Hamilton County Health Department interim health officer


Several small clusters of infection at area fitness centers have been reported in the past, according to the Hamilton County Health Department, but none of those infections are current, chief administrator Becky Barnes said.

“When area fitness centers were notified of a case or multiple cases, each facility took it upon themselves to notify clients, close the facility to clean and request members quarantine based on exposure,” Urrego said.

While public health officials recommend people wear masks at all times inside fitness facilities, Hamilton County does not require people to wear masks while exercising.

The Sportsbarn, a fitness club with three locations in Chattanooga, requires patrons to wear masks when they enter the building, in common areas and in locker rooms, but not while exercising, swimming or showering.

The club continues to follow Hamilton County and state of Tennessee guidelines, including limiting class sizes, said Teresa Wade, manager of the downtown location.

To encourage distancing, the club says it removed exercise machines to make it impossible for patrons to exercise within 6 feet of each other.

In the yoga studio, staff outlined spaces with yellow tape for class participants to place their mats. Wade said that made it clear to attendees the space they needed to maintain from one another and also prevented people from exceeding class size limits by sneaking in after the start of class.

The club has added more AIRPHX machines, she said, which have been proven to kill airborne pathogens including the coronavirus, according to an independent study found on the company’s website.

CDC guidelines for gym and fitness facilities recommend that people look for gyms with high ceilings and open windows and doors for ventilation. They also advise people to change and shower at home rather than using gym facilities and to bring extra masks to switch out with masks that become wet during exercise.

Contact Emily Crisman at [email protected] or 423-757-6508.