Going to the gym (or should I avoid it?)

The question of whether (and how) you can safely go to the gym depends on many factors, chief among them are both the type of gym and the type of exercise.

The fact remains that outdoor or at home exercise is the safest — this includes running, biking, other outdoor exercise that can be performed alone (or socially distanced), and Zoom classes like yoga. Ideally, your gym would offer classes outdoors (and we predict more of them will).

However, it is hard for many of us to stay motivated at home without scheduled classes and instructors. In the summer heat, an air conditioned studio is appealing. Not everyone has pilates equipment in their house. And not every gym has the option to do outside class.

Gyms and exercise classes help a lot of us stay fit and healthy and are beneficial for mental health. You may decide it’s worth the risk for your mental and physical health. This, like many other topics we’ve covered, is a cost-benefit analysis—we accept risk for going to the gym like we accept risk for many other things in our daily lives, pandemic or not.

If you do want to go to the gym, you obviously want to do it as safely as possible. This is one of the cases where we want to refer back to the overall Path of the Virus explainer. Understanding how the virus spreads is key to avoiding it: transmission occurs when you are in close contact with people and inhale their viral droplets. Therefore, vigorous exercise in close quarters carries some risks.

But there are more and less risky ways to workout at a gym. There are certain questions you can and should ask yourself in order to take precautions and exercise as safely as possible:

How close (physically) are you to the instructor and other gym goers? Instructors speaking loudly and exercising will expel more respiratory droplets. The same is true for other people at the gym. A study found that droplets from speech in confined spaces could increase viral transmission. A case in South Korea identified a cluster of infections that were traced back to a particular Zumba class.The instructor was found to have had the virus and was probably in the early stages when she taught the class. Bottom line: You may want more than six feet of distance in the gym.

What is the airflow like? The smaller the studio and the more stagnant the airflow, the higher the risk. Now is probably not the time to take up hot yoga due to the excessive breathing and humid air involved–especially since pathogens breed in hot environments. Whether the virus can be spread in the air via aerosols (these are smaller than respiratory droplets and can hang in the air for longer) is still a question we need to answer, as most of the studies suggesting that it’s possible have been done in hospital environments with aspirations from infected patients (this is a good technical article on this topic). But increased airflow can disperse viral droplets from other gym goers and instructors more efficiently and decrease the amount of exposure; gyms with air filters are also safer.

What type of exercise? The same study in South Korea that linked infections to transmission from a Zumba instructor also found that transmission of the virus was less in pilates and yoga classes. It is (relatively) easy to distance yourself from others in yoga classes. If you are in a cardio class with 30 or more people it may be difficult to distance from everyone breathing heavily.

Can you clean the equipment? If your gym has a policy of wiping down the equipment and you are able to clean the equipment between uses, this will reduce transmission. Gyms have always been breeding grounds for pathogens. A study at high school gyms found that implementing disinfectant protocols and hand sanitizer decreased the overall bacterial load by 94%, including eliminating any detection of influenza.

Beyond these basic considerations, you may wonder about wearing a mask. Gyms may well implement this, but the wetter the mask gets the less effective it is. Wearing a mask while exercising is not particularly pleasant either. If your gym implements this…there are tradeoffs.

The Bottom Line:

  • Choose a class where you can distance yourself from others. Lower cardio classes such as yoga and pilates are less risky.
  • Clean equipment thoroughly between users and choose a gym that has good cleaning practices.
  • Distance yourself from the instructor.
  • Choose studios with rooms that have good airflow. Consider avoiding hot classes due to the increased humidity.