With more people choosing to avoid public spaces or large crowds, should you be putting off your gym sessions in light of the developing coronavirus situation?

By Arielle Tschinkel
March 09, 2020

Another day, another coronavirus headline. People are buzzing about N95 masks on Instagram, your mom is sending you a slew of cautionary texts, and your local drugstore is sold of hand sanitizer (again). With the world buzzing over coronavirus COVID-19—and the fact that it's still cold and flu season, folks!—it's understandable why you might be focused on reducing your risk of getting sick.

By now, you (hopefully!) know many of the expert-approved advice for how to prepare for the coronavirus: avoid touching your face, wash your hands thoroughly, disinfect surfaces regularly, and stay home when you don't feel well. On top of that, you should continue to maintain a healthy lifestyle that includes plenty of sleep, a nutrient-rich diet, and regular exercise.

Of course, getting your sweat on is chock full of health benefits—exercise is a touted immune-booster, but could going to your hot yoga studio or big box gym actually be doing more harm than good during this coronavirus outbreak? Here's what you need to know before you head out the door.

Is it safe to go to the gym with coronavirus lurking?

Despite being a place for getting—and staying—fit, the average gym or workout studio is teeming with bacteria that could make you sick. Illness-causing germs tend to lurk on exercise equipment such as free weights (which, btw, rival toilet seats in bacteria) and cardio machines, as well as in communal areas like the locker room.

In other words, group fitness spaces are Petri dishes, Philip Tierno Jr., Ph.D., a clinical professor of microbiology and pathology at NYU Medical School and the author of The Secret Life of Germs, previously told Shape. "I've even found MRSA on an exercise ball in a gym."

Still, you're no more likely to catch coronavirus COVID-19 at the gym than any other bacteria or virus, and it's still safe to go as long as you take some preventative measures, says Paul Sax, M.D., in an interview with Time. "The gym is not a place that's necessarily riskier than other communal areas," said Dr. Sax, medical director of the division of infectious diseases at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. "I wouldn't say there's anything particular about people sweating that makes them more contagious." (Related: Should You Really Work From Home Amid the Coronavirus Outbreak?)

How can you prevent catching coronavirus at the gym?

So far (remember: it's still a new, relatively unknown strain of the virus), coronavirus transmission is largely happening through respiratory droplets (mucus and saliva) in the air from people coughing and sneezing and not from sweat. But the virus can also spread by touching a surface that's been contaminated by COVID-19 and then putting your hands in your mouth, nose, or eyes.

Before you freak out and cancel all your group classes, you should know that it's pretty easy to protect yourself at the gym or any shared public space for that matter.

Wipe down surfaces. You should wipe down any equipment you use with disinfectant products before and after your workout, David A. Greuner, M.D., managing director and co-founder of NYC Surgical Associates previously told Shape. Using a mat? Don't forget to clean that too—specifically with a bleach-based wipe or a 60 percent alcohol disinfectant spray and let it air-dry, adds Dr. Greuner. In light of the recent uptick in coronavirus cases, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a list of disinfectant products that not only remove germs but kill them, too. (Note: Products from Clorox and Lysol are among the EPA-approved picks.)

As for how long the coronavirus can last on surfaces, the World Health Organization (WHO) notes that it can vary from a few hours up to several days, depending on the surface and the conditions (i.e. temperature or humidity can keep germs alive longer). Research from Harvard Medical School notes that while more research needs to and is being done, it seems that the virus is transmitted less easily from soft surfaces than frequently-touched hard surfaces, (i.e. your favorite elliptical machine). Eep.

Be conscious of your outfit choices. You also might want to switch up your workout gear. Opting for leggings over shorts could limit the surface area germs has to get onto your skin. Speaking of exercise gear, it's also important that you strip out of your sweaty ensemble post-workout ASAP. Synthetic fibers, like those used in your favorite workout clothes, can be breeding grounds for icky bacteria, especially when they're warm and wet, like after a sweat session. Staying in a soggy sports bra five or 10 minutes after your spin class is fine, but you don't want to wait longer than a half-hour.

Grab some towels. Use a clean towel or tissue to limit contact with shared surfaces such as mats, equipment, and machines. Then, be sure to use a different, clean towel to wipe off sweat.

Wash your water bottle regularly. When you take a sip of water mid-workout, germs can move into your bottle from the rim and reproduce rather quickly. And if you have to use your hands to screw off a lid or open a squeeze top, your chances of collecting more bacteria are even higher. While using a reusing water bottle is definitely an eco-conscious choice, try to avoid drinking from the same water bottle once you're done at the gym. The longer you go without washing your water bottle, the more likely it is that hundreds of bacteria are lurking at the bottom. Using the bottle after just a few days of not washing it can be the equivalent of drinking from a public swimming pool, Elaine L. Larson, Ph.D., the senior associate dean for research at Columbia University School of Nursing, previously told Shape.

Keep your hands to yourself. And even though you might be thrilled to see your gym buddy or your favorite instructor, you might want to forego the hugs and high-fives for now. Still, if you do high-five your neighbor after pushing through that SoulCycle climb, don't freak out. Just be sure to keep your hands away from your face, mouth, and nose and wash your hands immediately after class. You can also use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if you're too much of a rush to wait for the bathroom. (Related: Can Hand Sanitizer Actually Kill the Coronavirus?)

How gyms are preparing for the coronavirus

In recent weeks, popular gyms including Bar Method, Equinox, SoulCycle, Flywheel, 305 Fitness, and Barry's Bootcamp, among others have all sent notices to members about how they are handling the coronavirus concerns at the studio.

For example, Bar Method in Scarsdale, New York has notified members via email and Instagram that they're "doing absolutely everything possible" to make sure their studio remains clean and coronavirus-free. For that  location, specifically, this means amping up cleaning and disinfecting efforts and "wiping down as much as possible throughout the day."

In addition, to ramping up clean-up crews and rounds, Life Time, a luxury gym chain across the U.S. and Canada, is "adding more Purell stands throughout [their] clubs," according to a press release.

Some studios—including SoulCycle and Bar Method—are even honoring late cancellations for those who aren't feeling well, sharing the same messages as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): Stay home if you're sick to prevent the spreading of illnesses to fellow gym-goers.

Should you work out at home if you're worried about the coronavirus?

If you're still worried about getting sick at the gym and want to transition to exclusively working out at home, you're likely not alone. While high tech invocations, at-home equipment, and more streaming service than ever, at-home workouts have been increasingly popular as of late anyway, but growing concerns of exposure to coronavirus have doubled down on that interest.

Stock market analysts are even expecting a spike in sales of apps and at-home equipment such as the Peloton bike, according to USA Today. What's more, mobile downloads of health and fitness apps in the U.S. were up five percent year-over-year last month, according to the mobile insights and analytics platform App Annie. (Related: The Best Workout Apps to Download Right Now)

Good news: As long as you have the necessary equipment—many app- or streaming-based workouts require very little!—and some space in your home you can still do all your favorite workouts, without braving the crowds (or the possibility of the coronavirus) at your sold-out class.

In fact, obé, at-home streaming fitness platform, just announced that it's offering a free month of service to anyone in quarantine or self-quarantine. "During this uncertain time, we want people to stay strong, stay safe, and stay occupied with a caring community that always has your back," reports Mark Mullett and Ashley Mills, co-founders of obé, to Shape.

While you might be going sit crazy during a "better safe than sorry" self-quarantine situation, be sure to take time to rest if you're not feeling well. If you think you could be sick, be it with the coronavirus or a common cold, consider a light walk on the treadmill, an easy yoga session, or no prescriptive exercise at all. In fact, if you're experiencing symptoms in the chest area and below, such as coughing, wheezing, diarrhea, or vomiting, you should probably skip the workout entirely, Navya Mysore, M.D., a primary care provider and medical director at One Medical in New York City, previously told Shape. (Feeling better? Here's how to start exercising again after being sick.)

The bottom line on going to the gym during the developing coronavirus situation? 

Given all of the shared surfaces involved in group fitness, from yoga mats to medicine balls, well, it's hard not to start sweating over the situation. But if you take the right steps to stay healthy, there's little reason you need to start altering your gym routine.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. As updates about coronavirus COVID-19 continue to evolve, it’s possible that some information and recommendations in this story have changed since initial publication. We encourage you to check in regularly with resources such as the CDC, the WHO, and your local public health department for the most up-to-date data and recommendations.

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Comments (1)

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