This is a rapidly developing situation. For the most up-to-date information, check resources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and local health guidelines regularly. This story will be updated as new information becomes available.
- Before heading to your gym to work out, check your local health guidelines to learn about community spread. You can find a directory of state health departments here.)
- Many states require masks in public places, so be sure your gym bag includes a face covering.
- While much is still unknown about the coronavirus, it is known that transmission is much lower in an outdoor setting where air flow is high and you can adequately space out from others, which may not be possible in a gym.
If you’re like most of us, you’ve spent the last five months working out with bodyweight workouts or curling wine bottles and itching to return to the gym where you can get in some serious strength training. As states begin to slowly reopen, your local gym is likely opening its doors, too.
But, as the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread and schools reopen, some areas are reporting a resurgence of COVD-19 infections. So, it’s important to know what the transmission rate is in your community and to weigh the personal risks before making any decisions to return to a gym.
We spoke to the following experts to offer guidance on what to think about to keep yourself and others safe as you decide to return to your reopened gym:
- Kimberly Powers, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health
- Brian Labus, Ph.D., MPH, assistant professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Nevada Las Vegas
- Patrick Green M.D., UCHealth general cardiologist with special interest in sports cardiology
- Alexis Colvin, M.D., an orthopedic sports medicine surgeon at the Mount Sinai Health System
- Purvi Parikh, M.D., allergist and immunologist with the Allergy & Asthma Network
Is it safe to return to the gym?
Although gyms are reopening, it is still preferable to exercise outdoors versus in a confined space if you have that option, Colvin says.
While much is still unknown about coronavirus, what is known is that risk of transmission outdoors—where air is not stagnant and you can space out—is much lower than risk of transmission in a confined area. While you might be able to run outdoors for a long time and not cross paths with any other runners, this will hardly be the case at the gym, says Labus.
Plus, in a gym, heavy breathing may spread infectious droplets further, and without proper ventilation, this puts you at higher risk of catching or transmitting the disease.
Ultimately, Green says this is a decision to make on an individual basis regarding personal level of risk and activity of the coronavirus in that particular region. “I have personally advised some of my older patients who are at increased COVID risk to avoid the gym for now,” he adds.
And if you’re not feeling well, stay home, says Parikh. Especially if you’re exhibiting symptoms of coronavirus, such as fever, cough, or sore throat.
What should you do to keep yourself safe at the gym?
The best ways to protect yourself haven’t changed: limit contact with others, wash your hands regularly, and wipe down equipment before (and after) you use it, Labus says.
And if you decide to go to the gym, you’ll also want to make sure your gym is offering enough space so that people aren’t working out in close proximity to each other.
Some gyms have scheduled times to limit the number of people in the area at once, but exercising indoors poses an inherently higher risk of catching and spreading coronavirus, Powers says.
Additionally, you should bring your own water, as you’ll want to avoid using a drinking fountain (if they are even turned on). And, locker rooms will likely be closed, so only bring in your keys and a personal sweat towel if needed. Plan to use the bathroom at home and skip your post-workout shower at the gym, says Parikh.
What should you make sure your gym is doing to determine it’s safe to return?
The current CDC recommendation for physical distancing is to be at least six feet apart, so you should confirm that your gym is adhering to those guidelines when deciding to return. Other details that are important to check for are that hand sanitizer, tissues, and sanitizing wipes to wipe down equipment are readily available for everyone to use, Colvin says.
You should also make sure your gym is assessing all members on entry of any active symptoms, such as taking a temperature before entering to ensure no one is exhibiting signs of a fever (100.4°F or higher) or monitoring for coughing. You’ll also want to look for posted signs that include symptoms of COVID and things other gym-goers should do to lower risk of transmission. Of course, you’ll want to ensure your gym is mandating frequent cleaning of equipment and handwashing, says Green. And you should ask if you are required to bring or wear a cloth face covering or mask.
What are some risks to consider?
“I’d be pretty cautious before I enter a gym,” Powers says. “It’s hard to protect yourself fully inside of a gym.”
Spacing out or limiting class sizes and closing equipment to help with distancing might reduce your risk a little—it’s better than being right next to someone—but being indoors near others who are sweating and breathing hard increases your risk. And though gyms are trying to wipe everything down and put social distancing measures in place, the virus lingers in confined spaces, says Powers.
Even with a limited number of people in the gym, there may still be crowding around certain pieces of equipment. For example, if the gym has closed every other treadmill, you still have to walk past people using them to access yours, Labus says.
And, asymptomatic spread is still a concern the WHO said in a live session earlier this summer. This means you may be able to spread the virus to others without knowing you have it, and others may be able to spread it to you. If someone is asymptomatic, there would be no way to tell upon entering the gym.
Should you wear a mask or gloves when working out?
Good hand hygiene is preferable to wearing gloves. That’s because most people who wear gloves are not changing or cleaning them frequently enough, and so are more likely to be touching surfaces with dirty gloves, whereas it’s much easier to sanitize equipment and wash your hands in between handling gym equipment, Colvin explains.
Parikh suggests wearing a mask, which will help cut down on your risk of transmitting the virus to others and can help you avoid touching your face. Additionally, CDC guidelines suggest wearing a mask in public settings. However, exercising with a mask may be more difficult to breathe, so you can reduce your intensity to compensate.
And as a mask gets wet with sweat, it can become less effective, according to the Mayo Clinic. So, if you’re in for a long, sweaty workout, you could bring a few disposable masks so you can swap once yours gets sweaty, as this can also make it harder to breathe. At this point, sticking to outdoor workouts held by your local gym where you can maintain distance or working out in your home may be your safest bet.
Should you space out?
Yes, it’s important that if you decide to go to the gym, make sure that your gym is enforcing distancing by closing down certain machines, limiting the number of people in certain areas, and reducing class sizes, Green says.
And while it’s still not known exactly how far droplets containing the virus can spread due to heavy breathing or movement, the more space the better. Parikh recommends keeping at least 6 to 12 feet of space or more between yourself and other gym-goers.
One thing you can do to help cut down on the number of people you encounter during your sweat sesh—altering your workout routine if you can’t find a way to easily avoid other people. You can go at times when the gym is less busy, although you will probably not be the only person with this idea, Labus says.
Should you wipe down all equipment?
Yes. While before the coronavirus pandemic you probably only wiped down after you used something, now you should also thoroughly wipe down before you use equipment as an extra layer of precaution, Parikh says. And, she suggests bringing your own wipes if possible.