Your Risk of Getting Monkeypox at the Gym Is 'Very Low,' According to Experts

Here's what you need to know now that monkeypox has been declared a public health emergency.

Woman Wearing Face Mask At The Gym
Photo: Getty Images

The White House declared monkeypox a public health emergency on August 4, 2022 after news about the infectious disease had been swirling since early this summer. Since then, you may have been curious about your risk for contracting monkeypox in certain situations. And if you go to the gym or frequent fitness studios, you may now be wondering if there's a risk of contracting monkeypox from a sweaty environment where you share equipment with strangers.

Although it totally makes sense that you would want to exercise caution, "your risk of contracting monkeypox at the gym is very low," Armand Balboni, M.D., Ph.D., a former staff officer at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Infectious Diseases and CEO of Appili Therapeutics, tells Shape. So, let's look a little closer at the nitty-gritty.

What is monkeypox?

First things first: "Monkeypox is a viral illness," explains Kami Kim, M.D., director of infectious diseases at USF Health and attending physician at Tampa General Hospital. "The virus is in the group of viruses called orthopox that typically cause skin lesions — that is, a rash [or] spots that eventually scab over." The primary symptom of monkeypox is a rash, which can sometimes feel painful or itchy and is often the most distinctive sign that you may have been infected, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A rash caused by monkeypox can appear on or near the genitals, anus, hands, feet, arms, face, mouth, or inside the rectum, says Dr. Kim. Other signs may include a fever, exhaustion, a headache, or cold-like symptoms, among others, notes the CDC. Such symptoms may develop before the rash, after the rash, or not at all.

Though the current outbreak is new, monkeypox is not a new disease, explains Dr. Balboni. Unlike with the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists and health care workers already have defenses against monkeypox. The same vaccines have been used to prevent both monkeypox and smallpox for years. For example, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration approved the JYNNEOS vaccine for both monkeypox and smallpox in 2019. "The [monkeypox] virus is in the same group as smallpox, which is why the smallpox vaccine is effective [in protecting against monkeypox]," adds Dr. Kim. With that said, smallpox is "much more infectious and deadly than monkeypox," she says.

So how might you contract the virus in the first place? "Monkeypox is mostly spread through direct contact with the monkeypox rash or scabs or through the body fluids of someone with monkeypox," says Dr. Balboni. "That's why people should look to avoid close contact and skin-to-skin contact with people who either have monkeypox or look like they have a rash," he continues. Monkeypox "is most effectively transmitted by close skin-to-skin exposure, including sexual contact," he adds. However, monkeypox isn't considered a sexually transmitted disease, according to the CDC.

Can you get monkeypox at the gym?

When it comes to getting monkeypox at the gym, the risk of infection is low, but not zero. "If a person infected with monkeypox visits a gym, their body fluids, respiratory secretions, and rash materials can contaminate the environment," says Mackenzie Weise, M.P.H., C.I.C., epidemiologist and director of clinical solutions and content equity at Wolters Kluwer. "If this occurs, transmission to another person via contaminated objects, surfaces, or fabrics is possible. If the area isn't disinfected, orthopoxviruses (monkeypox virus genus), can survive in indoor environments for weeks or months."

There are a few reasons why you typically don't have to worry too much about contracting monkeypox at the gym. First, while monkeypox can occasionally spread through bedding, clothes, or towels used by someone with active lesions, that's not likely to happen in a gym facility, explains Dr. Kim. "Since most gyms are careful about disinfecting public facilities and the prompt laundering of towels, the likelihood of acquiring monkeypox is extremely low from contact at a gym," she says. "Most people with active skin lesions would be symptomatic and would be advised to quarantine until all lesions had completely healed," she adds.

What if the person on the treadmill next to you starts coughing — is it possible to get monkeypox through airborne transmission? Monkeypox is unlikely to spread through the air "except in very rare cases and in experiments in the lab with very prolonged exposure," notes Dr. Balboni.

In large part due to the COVID-19 pandemic, gyms are likely to be extra careful with hygiene measures regardless of the monkeypox outbreak. In 2020, the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), a not-for-profit trade association representing more than 200,000 health and fitness facilities worldwide, launched the Active & Safe Commitment. As part of the initiative, health club operators committed to following COVID-19 mitigation steps, including cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting their clubs. It's also standard practice for clubs to have hand sanitation stations available throughout facilities and to deep clean equipment and surfaces each night to prevent the spread of viruses.

How can you reduce your risk of getting monkeypox at the gym?

Though the risk of contracting the virus from visiting a gym or fitness studio is low, it's still a good idea to follow a few basic hygiene rules. "If you are nervous about contracting monkeypox or any other infectious disease at the gym, it's always a good practice to wipe down your machines and equipment both before and after use with an alcohol-based sanitizer spray or wipe," says Dr. Balboni. "You should also wash your hands with soap and water both before and after your workout and minimize direct contact with others at your gym."

Dr. Kim also advises you never share towels with any fellow gym-goers, as there is a small risk of monkeypox infection through fabrics. You can always bring your own towel to be on the safe side. "Most importantly, if you're sick, stay home!" says Weise. And if you want to be extra cautious, considering saving the crop tops and bike shorts for at-home workouts. "Safety trumps gym fashion: Plan to wear clothing that minimizes exposed skin [to the gym]," adds Weise.

In short, as long as your gym implements proper hygiene measures, such as regularly disinfecting surfaces, and you take a few simple steps to protect yourself by washing your hands, wiping down equipment, and wearing clothing that protects skin from touching surface, you can work out without getting worked up about monkeypox.

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