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Coronavirus and gyms: An infection control nurse offers advice on how to stay safe

Coronavirus and gyms: An infection control nurse offers advice on how to stay safe
(Image credit: Getty)

The coronavirus pandemic caused country-wide shut-downs of gyms, and now we’re slowly but surely seeing the reopening of fitness centers, with many running at reduced capacity or offering less group classes than usual. However, it seems as though some Americans are divided on whether or not to return. In a survey by broker TD Ameritrade, titled The New Basics, 59% of those polled said they don’t plan on returning to the gym, with 41% saying they do plan to go back. 

The main reason isn't tied to health concerns, but rather with their bank balance. Quite simply, the pandemic has helped them find ‘more affordable’ ways to stay fit and enhance their wellness, without having to pay a monthly gym fee. And it isn't just about money, either: a June survey by Healthline found that a quarter of those polled said they simply don’t miss working out in a gym environment. 

While we should take these types of surveys with a large dose of salt, they do hint at something of a sea change in American gym culture. Add to that the big spikes in the sale of home gym equipment these past few months, and it appears as though home workouts and outdoorsy ways of staying healthy is the new normal for many Americans.

Coronavirus and gyms: Face masks help keep us safe during indoor gyms

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But what about those of you who are devoted to working out in a gym? How can you stay as safe as possible while exercising in an indoor space with people outside of your household? We recently spoke with Lauren Bryan, an Infection Preventionist at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center, in Steamboat Springs, to get her opinion. 

Many fitness centers are using non-touch digital thermometers to take temperature readings upon entry, but this measure isn’t enough on its own, argues Bryan. So what COVID-safety measures should you be looking for in your gym? “Mask use for everyone. Temperature readings are a start but they are only one measure in a disease that has a wide array of symptoms.

“Screening for symptoms and temperature provides a false sense of security as the virus is also spread by pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic persons,” explains Bryan. “Go in with the assumption that everyone may have the virus and protect yourself accordingly – wear a mask, ensure physical distancing, and do frequent hand hygiene.

How to stay as COVID-safe as possible at the gym

The CDC has repeatedly told us that the longer we spend with people outside our household, the more our risk of coronavirus infection increases. That goes for a multitude of scenarios, including the gym. In fact, last month doctors produced a list of everyday activities that put you at risk, classing gyms as high-risk.

The Mayo Clinic has also published COVID-19 safety tips for the gym, stating that: 'Before going to the gym, call to see if it's limiting how many members are allowed in at the same time. You might have to reserve a block of time in advance, with staff cleaning the facility between blocks.

'Your gym will likely enforce social distancing by blocking access to every other cardio machine or by putting up barriers around equipment.' 

The Mayo Clinic advises you to:

  • Ask about the facility's cleaning and disinfecting policies and whether you'll be able to use the locker room or bathroom
  • Follow the gym's guidelines and stay at least 6 feet (2 meters) away from others
  • Clean equipment before and after using it
  • Understand that some equipment that's difficult to clean, such as foam rollers and yoga blocks, might not be available.

Coronavirus and gyms: a woman who works at a gym uses a forehead thermometer to check the temperature of a person before they are allowed in

(Image credit: Getty)

So how can you protect yourself as much as possible? “It is important to verify that your gym has taken measures to increase the distance between machines, and increase frequency of sanitation of shared equipment and close spaces where social distancing cannot occur (ex. locker rooms),” advises Infection Control Nurse Bryan.

“I use the same measures that are used in minimizing radiation exposure in radiology: time, distance, shielding. The longer you are in close proximity without a mask, the higher likelihood you have of virus transmission.”

After the initial hoarding during the early days of the pandemic, reusable face masks are now easy to come by, but what if you find yourself exercising next to someone who is unmasked? “I absolutely would not get on the treadmill next to them,” Bryan says. 

“Universal masking is the most effective method of preventing transmission. Of course, there are other variables that are harder to control: airflows, humidity, temperature, level of viral shedding of the infected person.”

Wearing masks when exercising at indoor gyms

Swathes of Americans continue to be divided over the use of cloth face masks, with many refusing to wear them in coffee shops and restaurants, let alone when working out at the gym. So is it safe to wear face masks when exercising at indoor gyms? “It is safe, as cloth and medical grade masks do not impair gas exchange,” explains Bryan.

“Medical grade masks have a fluid barrier so particulate efficiency is not impacted by moisture from condensation from our breath; as cloth masks don’t have this, you may want to bring along a couple in case your mask becomes damp.”

Coronavirus and gyms: a woman stretches during a socially distanced yoga class at a gym

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A little more yoga, a little less HIIT

A recent study published by the CDC, centered around coronavirus outbreaks in fitness dance classes in South Korea, led the CDC to advise that, ‘Vigorous exercise in confined spaces should be minimized during outbreaks.’ This throws up an interesting question about whether some exercises and group classes are safer than others inside gyms. 

“Most group classes are extremely high risk: people moving about in the room (creating turbulent airflows), close proximity, vigorous activity,” Bryan states, explaining that if you choose a group class, be thoughtful about what you choose based on those factors. 

“There should not be a fan in the room blowing air around, or people moving from one station to another. I would consider a spaced out spin, yoga or Pilates class where stations are stable."

Ultimately, says Bryan, while everyone has to do their own risk assessment, it is also important to appreciate the risks of those around you, "due to the virus’ ability to spread in asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic persons. For instance, I am healthy but if I contracted the virus, I could unwittingly transmit it to my elderly in-laws or my co-worker whose husband has cancer. We are all in this together.”

A woman exercises along with an online bodyweight training class

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How to create an affordable home gym

It isn’t our intention to put you off returning to the gym, but instead to help you stay as safe as possible if you choose to return. For those who want to continue exercising at home, you don’t need to spend a fortune on equipment to get an effective cardio or weights workout.

Walking is an accessible form of exercise for many, and you can either do it outdoors, soaking up the mental health benefits of being in nature, or indoors by jumping on one of the best treadmills for running, power walking and increasing your mobility post-injury (you’ll need your doctor’s approval first).

Missing the weights room at your local gym? Try bodyweight exercises instead, and happily these require zero equipment - your own body weight provides the resistance. You also could follow along with bodyweight, cardio and HIIT workouts by subscribing to one of the best online fitness training programs

For spin class at home, check out the best exercise bikes, which often give you the chance (via a subscription) to workout as part of a live virtual class. Start with just one piece of equipment, or even a fitness tracker to monitor your daily activity, and build from there.