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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