Fitness facilities across the country are (cautiously) opening their doors again. But experts say the risk of picking up a coronavirus infection at the gym might still be high.

By Emilia Benton
May 05, 2020
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It's happening: Nearly two months after stay-at-home orders began in the U.S. to slow the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19), some states are beginning to relax social distancing guidelines and cautiously reopen certain businesses—including gyms. Naturally, though, you're probably wondering whether it's truly safe to go back to the gym yet if yours has reopened.

Keep in mind: Gyms and fitness clubs are still closed in some areas, while others are reopening with strict restrictions and recommendations. Gyms are allowed to reopen in Georgia, for example. Guidelines and restrictions vary depending on the facility, but overall, gyms in the state that are reopening are limiting capacity, enhancing cleaning and sanitation practices, using signs and floor markers to promote social distancing, and limiting members to cardio and strength equipment. Meanwhile, group fitness classes, basketball courts, child-care centers, and locker room facilities remain off-limits in most cases, according to USA Today. Oklahoma and Tennessee have similar restrictions in place, with some gyms considering the use of health screening measures like temperature checks and questionnaires as members come in. (Related: The Most Common Coronavirus Symptoms to Look Out for, According to Experts)

Similarly, Life Time is preparing to open some (but not all) of its 150 U.S. and Canada gym locations with a number of new health and safety protocols, says Dan DeBaun, a public relations specialist for Life Time. While those measures include improved cleaning—think: overnight deep cleaning, more cleaning stations, and disinfectant wipes throughout the club for members—certain reopened Life Time locations will also maintain group fitness classes, plus access to locker rooms, children's areas, and pool areas (all with limited capacity), explains DeBaun. For group classes, the gyms will also provide dedicated equipment that is cleaned between classes, and social distancing guidelines will be marked across all reopened gyms, he says.

"The decision on how and when to reopen specific locations will be based on member input, as well as governmental orders and guidance, however," adds DeBaun. "Life Time has also not charged access dues to members since clubs closed, and even provided members with dues credits for partial closures in March."

Of course, just because some gyms are reopening in certain states, that doesn't necessarily mean everyone will (or should) actually go. It really comes down to whether or not you, personally, feel comfortable and safe doing so. For example, Robin Doyle, an elementary school cafeteria worker in Lebanon Missouri, recently returned to her small local gym after it reopened on April 27, she tells Shape. Doyle says her gym has specific, strict cleaning measures and social distancing rules in place. The location only allows 10 people inside at once and requires members to work out six feet apart, explains Doyle. She also says she and other gym members are diligent about wiping down workout equipment both before and after using it (a practice she'd been maintaining before the pandemic anyway, she adds).

"Based on the health and safety measures my gym is taking to enforce distancing guidelines and maintain cleanliness, I feel safe working out there," shares Doyle. "However, even though the gym is going to start offering group workout classes again soon, I will opt to stick with solo workouts for now."

But even if some gyms have reopened, is it safe to go?

Overall, experts agree that it's wise to still tread carefully at the gym—especially if you're in a region with a higher incidence of COVID-19 cases.

"Your usual gym routine most likely would not work right now, as contracting the virus is still very much a possibility," says Eudene Harry, M.D., a board-certified emergency medicine physician in Orlando, Florida. "Crowded gyms with someone working out immediately to your right and left sides do not leave much room for social distancing."

That goes for everyone BTW, not just immunocompromised folks, adds Stephen Berger, M.D., a board-certified infectious disease doctor and co-founder of the Global Infectious Diseases and Epidemiology Network (GIDEON), an online diagnosis and reference tool for infectious diseases and microbiology. "A gym is just another venue in which disease can be passed from person to person, and the risk of contracting COVID-19 might increase there, where group sports and games require close personal contact," he explains. "The fact that you might be young and healthy won't affect your chance of becoming [infected]; it will really only increase your chances of surviving an infection without severe or fatal consequences." (In other words, even though some businesses are reopening, coronavirus transmission is definitely still possible.)

Similarly, if you're in a region where local officials are mandating or strongly urging residents to wear face masks or other facial coverings in public, the gym is not exempt from those guidelines, notes Dr. Berger. After all, pandemic or no pandemic, the gym is one of the germiest places people frequent on a regular basis. Commonly touched surfaces aside, when people exert themselves during exercise, oftentimes they're "huffing and puffing more than usual," meaning "the ability to project droplets faster and further is a possibility," potentially making those frequently used surfaces even riskier, notes Dr. Harry. Wearing a face mask, while not foolproof, might help mitigate some of that possible spread. If it's too uncomfortable to breathe or do certain exercises while wearing a mask, you might be better off working out alone outside or at home. (Related: Should You Wear a Face Mask for Outdoor Runs During the Coronavirus Pandemic?)

As for cleaning, you're not necessarily in the clear if you simply wipe down and sanitize equipment before and after you use it, says Dr. Harry. It's also important to frequently sanitize your hands while you're at the gym. Think about it: When you work out, you're probably sweating, meaning the tendency to touch your face will likely increase, explains Dr. Harry.

Once you're ready to leave the gym, it's a good idea to not only thoroughly wash your hands but also change your clothes, if possible, suggests Dr. Harry. If your gym isn't allowing access to locker rooms, change clothes as soon as you're able to at home and hop in the shower ASAP. (Related: Can the Coronavirus Spread Through Shoes?)

Again, if your local gym has reopened, it's up to you and your personal comfort level whether you feel safe going. But as of now, experts are extremely wary of the idea of people returning to the gym. Until better, more widespread coronavirus testing measures are in place, it's nearly impossible to know just how many people (including gym-goers) are actually carrying COVID-19, explains Dr. Harry. And without a vaccine or other effective treatments, there's still a risk of experiencing secondary complications from the virus. (Reminder: Tons of fitness trainers and studios are offering free online workouts if you feel more comfortable working out at home.)

"The issue is that many [infected] individuals have little symptoms and may not be aware that they are carriers," says Dr. Harry. "Too many people may feel well enough to go to the gym, and keeping the numbers under control may prove to be an issue if the gym doesn't have specific guidelines in place, or it isn't enforcing them."

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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