Should You Go to the Gym During the Coronavirus Outbreak?
Many fitness centers have reopened, but is it safe to take your sweat sessions from the living room back to the gym?
When COVID-19 began spreading in the U.S., gyms were one of the first public spaces to shut down. Nearly a year later, the virus is still spreading in many parts of the country — but some fitness centers have reopened their businesses, from small local sports clubs to big gym chains like Crunch Fitness and Gold’s Gym.
Of course, going to a gym now definitely doesn’t look the same as it did before the COVID-19 pandemic. Most fitness centers now require members and staff alike to wear masks, practice social distancing, and undergo temperature checks, among other safety protocols. (BTW, yes, it is safe to work out in a face mask.)
But even with these new safety measures in place, that doesn’t necessarily mean going to the gym is a completely risk-free activity. 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," he said.
Plus, Henry F. Raymond, Dr.PH, M.P.H., associate director for public health at the Rutgers School of Public Health, told Shape that merely panting and sweating inside the enclosed space of a gym can create “lots of opportunities for you to exhale virus particles if you happen to be infected but not symptomatic.” (ICYMI, coronavirus transmission commonly happens via respiratory droplets that linger in the air after coughing, sneezing, and even talking.)
That said, the new COVID-19 safety measures at most gyms — such as mandated face masks and off-limits locker room facilities — seem to be paying off so far, according to a recent report from the International Health, Racquet, & Sportsclub Association and MXM, a company that specializes in fitness tracking. The report looked at local infection rates across the U.S. and compared them to some 50 million gym members’ check-in data from nearly 3,000 gyms (including Planet Fitness, Anytime Fitness, Life Time, and Orangetheory, among others) between May and August of 2020. The results of the analysis showed that, of the roughly 50 million gym-goers whose data were collected, only 0.0023 percent tested positive for COVID-19, according to the report.
Translation: Public fitness facilities not only appear to be safe, but they also don’t seem to be contributing to the spread of COVID-19, according to the report.
Conversely, though, when public fitness spaces don't adopt COVID-19 safety protocols like mask-wearing and social distancing, the consequences can be serious in terms of public health risk. New research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests COVID can spread rapidly in gyms when members aren't wearing masks — especially in group fitness classes. At a gym in Chicago, for example, CDC researchers identified 55 COVID infections among 81 people who attended in-person, high-intensity workout classes at the facility between late August and early September. Even though the class capacity had been capped at 25 percent of its typical size to allow for social distancing, the gym didn't require members to wear masks once they began exercising in the class, a detail that "likely contributed to transmission" of the virus in this local outbreak, according to the research.
That Chicago-based outbreak is far from the only incident where indoor exercise resulted in local clusters of COVID-19 infections. In Ontario, Canada, over 60 COVID-19 cases were linked to a cycling studio in the area. And in Massachusetts, indoor ice rinks were shut down for two weeks after at least 30 COVID-19 infections were connected to youth ice hockey games in the area.
FWIW, though, masks seem to be extremely effective in avoiding these spikes in infection rates. In New York, for instance, gyms (along with all other public spaces in the state) are required by state law to mandate mask-wearing among both staff and members, and gyms in the state accounted for only .06 percent of 46,000 recent COVID infections with a known source (for context, household gatherings accounted for a whopping 74 percent of those New York COVID infections), according to statistics shared by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in December 2020. But in the COVID clusters in Ontario and Massachusetts, public mask mandates weren't as strictly enforced at the time, which appears to have played a major role in those infection-rate spikes.
As effective as these types of safety measures can be, most experts are still extremely cautious about the idea of going to the gym right now, even in parts of the U.S. where COVID-19 infection rates are dropping. Put simply, going to the gym — like many things in this new pandemic world — is not a risk-free activity.
“Any time we go out, there is a risk,” William Schaffner, M.D., an infectious disease specialist and a professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, told Shape. “What we are all trying to do is lower the risk.”
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 your gym membership, 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) says 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 have 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. FYI: Some reopened gyms are now encouraging, or, in some cases, requiring members to bring their own towels (in addition to their own mats and water — be sure to check with your fitness facility ahead of time to learn about their specific guidelines). Regardless of what the situation is at your local gym, always use a clean towel (or tissue) to limit contact with shared surfaces such as 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 reusable 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. 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 in too much of a rush to wait for the bathroom. (Related: Can Hand Sanitizer Actually Kill the Coronavirus?)
Should you work out at home if you're worried about the coronavirus?
Ultimately, it depends on your personal comfort level (and your access to a reopened location) whether you want to return to the gym. If you’re itching to get back to your usual gym routine, plenty of reopened locations are following public health and safety guidelines — and, again, those guidelines seem to be working to keep people safe. (Here's what you can expect as gyms and workout studios begin to reopen.)
Regardless, though, “it is far safer to work out at home in order to social distance and avoid people infected with COVID-19 who might not have any symptoms,” Richard Watkins, M.D., an infectious disease physician and a professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, told Shape.
“You have to think about your own level of risk you’re willing to accept,” added Raymond. “And don’t forget that what you do influences whoever you come into contact with. Do you feel OK going to a gym with other people who are exhaling strenuously and then going home to your grandmother? Think about that.”
While you might be going stir-crazy during a "better safe than sorry" quarantine situation, be sure to take time to rest from fitness 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.