Here’s Why COVID-19 Can Spread So Easily at Gyms and Fitness Classes
By Julia Ries
For the past few months, people have been working out inside their homes. Bedrooms became yoga studios, offices doubled as cycling spaces.
But now, as states reopen, some gyms and fitness studios are welcoming customers again.
People are antsy to get back to their normal exercise routines, but many are left wondering how risky going to a gym is right now.
Health experts say the key to protecting yourself comes down to four things: masking, physical distancing, handwashing — and whenever possible, taking your workout outdoors.
Here's what to know if you're thinking about going back to the gym.
Here’s How COVID-19 Can Spread at the Gym
One of the main concerns health experts have about COVID-19 is how readily it can spread through the air via respiratory droplets, especially in confined spaces.
Researchers from South Korea recently warned people against rigorously exercising in confined spaces like fitness studios.
For an early release report published in Emerging Infectious Diseases, Korean researchers looked at a confirmed case of COVID-19 and eventually traced consecutive confirmed cases back to a nationwide fitness dance class.
Ultimately, the research team found 112 COVID-19 cases linked to dance workout classes across 12 different facilities.
According to the researchers, the moist, warm air combined with turbulent air flow from exercising may create an environment in which droplets can spread readily.
"Based on recent research, aerosolized droplets can remain airborne for up to 3 hours, making the potential for spread in crowded and confined spaces such as fitness studios problematic," said Dr. Robert Glatter, an emergency medicine physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
The size and intensity of the class can also impact transmission.
According to the study, transmission was detected in fitness classes that were about 50 minutes long, were held in a studio measuring around 645 square feet, and included anywhere from 5 to 22 people.
People breathe harder when they work out, which is the prime way the virus spreads from person to person.
"When people breathe more rapidly and more deeply, they expel greater numbers of droplets," Glatter said.
Keep in mind that even if people who have COVID-19 don't have symptoms, they can still spread the disease.
Dr. Anne Liu, infectious disease physician with Stanford Health Care, said people are most infectious the day before, day of, and a couple of days after developing symptoms. They can even transmit the virus several days before symptoms appear, Liu noted.
If a person is asymptomatic or presymptomatic, they can expel viral particles into the air through droplets that can become aerosolized, according to Glatter.
"This increases the potential of transmission among people in hot and crowded fitness studios with poor air circulation," Glatter said.
Take Your Workouts Outdoors
The most effective solution is to take your workout outside, according to Liu.
Gyms with access to outdoor space should consider hosting fitness classes outside, Liu said.
The risk for contracting the coronavirus outdoors is lower than contracting it inside because coronavirus particles can disperse more quickly outside.
When working out outside, people should still stay 6 feet away from others, bring their own equipment, and limit the number of people in the group.
Remember, just because you're outside doesn't mean you can't get sick — it just means you have a lower chance of being exposed to viruses in the air.
Here’s How to Protect Yourself at the Gym
If your heart is set on going to the gym, make a plan.
Liu said everyone has to grade their own risk.
Look at local transmission in your area (more outbreaks could mean you have a higher risk) and what local health authorities are saying about community spread.
Consider your own underlying health conditions and age, and whether it's safe for you to be in confined spaces with others.
"Each person needs to really assess their own risk, and then assess the risk of that situation to determine whether that level of risk is acceptable to themselves," Liu said.
At the gym, practice good hand hygiene, bring your own equipment when possible, and disinfect any communal weights or mats you may use.
You may also want to consider wearing a mask while exercising.
Though this can be tricky with high intensity workouts, masking will ultimately help us share space again, according to Liu.
Physical distancing can cut your risk of developing COVID-19, too.
Until there's a readily available vaccine, we shouldn't let our guards down at the gym just yet.
The Bottom Line
People are antsy to get back to their normal exercise routines, but many are wondering how risky going to a gym is right now.
Early evidence shows COVID-19 can spread readily in confined spaces where people are rigorously working out. The safest thing to do is take your workout outdoors.
If your heart is set on the gym, it's crucial to look at community spread in your area and your own risk factors. When in doubt, wear a mask while exercising if possible, practice physical distancing, and keep washing your hands.
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Kevin T. Smiley
When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
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