Here’s what you need to know about working out at fitness centers and studios in the time of the coronavirus.  If you go, experts advise taking these precautions. Indoor gyms and fitness centers tend to be risky for COVID-19 transmission because people tend to touch a lot of surfaces when they go and ventilation may be poor.

Consider Your Health Status and Risk

Stay Home if You Have Any Symptoms or Have Been Exposed to the Virus

Wear a Mask, Including When Exercising if Possible

Disinfect Equipment and Your Hands

Avoid the Locker Room and Water Fountain

Don’t Touch Your Face – if You Need to Wipe Away Sweat, Use a Towel

Disinfect Everything When You Get Home

As businesses and public spaces reopen in the United States, you may have noticed that gyms and fitness centers are typically among the last to reopen – and for good reason.

“Gyms in general are probably one of the highest-risk spaces of all of our reopening and returns,” explains Iahn Gonsenhauser MD, chief quality and patient safety officer with The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus.

Current research shows that transmission of the novel coronavirus occurs through respiratory droplets carrying the virus coming into contact with the eyes, mouth, and nose, explains Mary Rodgers, PhD, principal scientist of infectious disease research for Abbott, a healthcare company that has created multiple COVID-19 virus molecular and antibody tests.  And emerging research suggests aerosols (respiratory particles you expel during breathing and talking that are even smaller than droplets) may spread even farther.

Virus particles in these respiratory droplets and aerosols can make their way to you and me both by floating through the air (until gravity pulls them down), as well as by landing on surfaces that people touch and then carry virus particles to their eyes, mouth, or nose.

Both means of exposure can become more prevalent in gym and fitness settings, especially indoor ones.  Ventilation and how much stale air you’re breathing in depends, of course, on the design of your gym, a health coach from Folsom CA says.  “But many gyms are enclosed, high-touch, and close-proximity spaces.”

Plus, vigorous exercise increases the range at which people exhale respiratory particles because they’re breathing more heavily.  Moderate-intensity exercise can increase your breathing rate to 7 to 10 times your at-rest breathing rate, according to the University of Florida. (Full-out intensity exercise that leaves you gasping for breath can increase that resting breathing rate up to 20 times).

That means, Gonsenhauser explains, while someone typically might exhale respiratory particles that linger in a three- to six-foot radius, that range may increase to 15 to 20 feet, or even more, during vigorous

Additionally, you might be more likely to experience a runny nose or watery eyes when working out intensely.  And if you’re infected with the coronavirus, any mucus or tears you’re shedding can contain virus particles that can drop on surfaces someone else might touch or spread to your hand after you wipe them off (and then on whatever you subsequently touch), Gonsenhauser adds.

So, is any gym safe to use in the time of COVID-19?

First of All, How Risky Your Gym Is Depends on Where It Is and What Safety Measures Are Being Taken

In general, fitness centers carry a high risk of potential exposure because of these aforementioned factors – the lack of ventilation, close-proximity setups, and tendency for high-touch behaviors. But no two gyms carry the exact same risks.  First of all, it depends on how many cases of COVID-19 are being reported in your area. Are you in the middle of an outbreak? Lower case numbers mean you’re less likely to come in contact with someone carrying the virus.

The risk of going back to a gym in any of those places will therefore look different because of the different precautions each locality is taking – and because the number of new cases in each area is different.  (And note that those guidelines are all subject to change if the rates of new cases in a given area changes.)

“I’m an avid gymgoer – but I’m not going yet,” Gonsenhauser says. As more businesses and public spaces, including gyms, open in his community, he is watching to see if COVID-19 infection rates increase, noting that any increases due to re-openings tend to show up a week or two after the reopening.

Your Gym’s Risk Profile Also Depends on the Specific Space You’re Going Back To

Risk also depends on the design of your gym or fitness studio, Gonsenhauser adds. Is it well ventilated?  Generally, the airier the gym, the better, he says.

Open windows and outdoor gym spaces can help reduce the risk of transmission because there’s more ventilation, adds Steven E. Mayer, MD, a sports medicine physician at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield, Illinois.  Anyone at the gym should choose outdoor spaces, such as outdoor tracks and fields, when possible, he says.

Are machines you’re using close together?  If you’re in a group class, how much personal space do you have around you?  Smaller, more densely populated spaces are typically those with the highest risk of transmission.  It can be hard to practice social distancing measures in group classes, enclosed rooms, and gyms with low square footage and ceiling height.

Also worth noting: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there is no evidence that the new coronavirus can transmit in chlorinated pools, but
swimmers should still practice social distancing and take care when touching things out of the water. (Dr. Mayer notes that he has returned to his local pool, but is taking care to mask up as soon as he gets out of the water.)

The bottom line: There’s not a clear-cut yes-or-no answer to whether or not gyms overall are safe yet.  It’s ultimately up to you to evaluate the situation and risk profile at the gym or fitness center you’re looking to return to and determine for yourself if you’re comfortable with it.

Tips to Stay Safe if You Do Go Back to the Gym

No matter what precautions your state, city, or gym is taking to help slow the spread of the coronavirus, here are a few suggestions from our experts to help make your own risk-analysis about returning to the gym and stay safe if you go:

Call your gym.  Ask what cleaning, social distancing, health screenings, and other protocols are in effect to keep you safe.  “Most enterprises will be forthcoming, and some may have already reached out through email with statements on their practices,” Gonsenhauser says.

According to the CDC, people over the age of 65 and those of any age with underlying health conditions are at an increased risk of severe illness following infection.  If you or someone you live with or are in close contact with are in those categories, any risk is heightened, and you want to be taking extra precautions, Gonsenhauser says.

Some facilities will ask you before entering if in the past two weeks you have any flu-like symptoms or if you’ve had contact with anyone diagnosed with COVID-19.  But you should be asking yourself those questions before you even go to the gym and staying home if you answer “yes” to any of them, Gonsenhauser says – even small coughs or a tickle in your throat.

Wearing a mask reduces both your chances of being exposed to the novel coronavirus, as well as the risk for exposing others.  Of course, face masks can be uncomfortable and inconvenient when breathing heavily, Gonsenhauser says.  While some gyms are allowing exercisers to not wear masks during intense exercise as long as they maintain six feet of distance from others, it’s still safest to wear a mask at all times.

“Use hygiene stations between exercises and disinfect equipment before and after use,” Gonsenhauser recommends.  While gym staff should be regularly cleaning equipment, it’s still possible that you could pick up a weight that someone else just set down (and may contain virus particles from someone who is infected).

Your gym should have hand sanitizers and cleaning wipes readily available for frequent use.  He also recommends vigorously washing your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds before and after your workouts.

Both Gonsenhauser and Mayer recommend avoiding locker rooms and public restrooms when possible.  “These are close-contact spaces that generally involve touching a lot of surfaces and are also commonly home to respiratory secretions,” Gonsenhauser says.

Also avoid using water fountains, which some gyms are roping off for safety anyway.  “Take your own water bottle,” Gonsenhauser says – ideally one that you can drink out of without touching the mouthpiece.

Don’t use your bare hand or arm to wipe that sweat from your face, as there’s always the potential for rubbing virus-carrying respiratory droplets directly into your eyes, nose or mouth.  Opt for a towel.  Some gyms provide towels; the most cautious choice would be to bring your own, Gonsenhauser says.

“Phone, headphones, anything – disinfect it,” Gonsenhauser says.  After disinfecting any objects that were in the gym with you (a disinfectant wipe can work), he also recommends showering and changing clothes (even though there’s a relatively low risk of the virus living on your clothes).