Heading back to the gym? Doctors explain how to stay safe

A man exercises at the gym.

(Joseph Wayne Buchanan/Pexels)

Are some workouts, like yoga or spinning classes, less safe than others? Should I wear a mask? Do I need more than six-feet apart in cardio classes where there’s panting and heavy breathing?

There are many legitimate concerns about how gyms and fitness studios can safely reopen without furthering the spread of the novel coronavirus. But infectious disease experts say risk can be greatly mitigated by following some simple rules.

“There may be scenarios where (the gym) can’t develop a system whereby your risks are lower, so the responsibility falls to you,” said Dr. Deverick Anderson, director of the Duke Center for Antimicrobial Stewardship and Infection Prevention.

So:

WASH, REWASH, REPEAT

“When you put down that dumbbell, you’ve got to immediately wash your hands. You’ve got to assume that if you were to accidentally touch your eyes, you’re putting yourself at risk,” Anderson says.

Bring your own towel, wash every piece of equipment before and after using it so you’re not relying on whether someone before you followed the rules. Most gym wipes aren’t strong enough, so bring your own disinfectant or inquire what the gym is using. And before you hop on the treadmill or grab your weight, let the spray sit on the equipment for a minute or two, he says.

Surfaces, not people, may offer more opportunities for contact with the virus. Experts have said different things, but some believe the virus can last for up to 24 hours on cardboard and up to two or three days on plastic and stainless steel. But the federal Centers for Disease Control says — and re-emphasized last week — that surfaces are not thought to be a major path for transmission.

If respiratory droplets from an infected person do land on surfaces, “they absolutely can be spread there, and it’s a very common thing to wipe sweat off your forehead,” said Dr. Kristin Englund, an infectious disease expert at Cleveland Clinic. “But if you wipe past your eyes or nose, you’re going to be carrying the virus there.”

CARDIO

Cardio workouts and fitness classes may pose increased risks.

“Being on an elliptical machine and breathing very heavily on that, those activities make me anxious about being able to spread the virus more heavily because people are going to be panting and sweating,” Englund said. “I think there’s a greater risk for taking classes where you are going to be doing a lot of cardio.”

Anderson agrees that there should be at least six feet of distance in cardio settings — along with an understanding that the risk there is “not the same as walking into the grocery store six feet apart.”

MASKS

Anderson acknowledges that it’s impractical to wear masks while sweating, but he suggests wearing them to enter and exit facilities. Employees, he says, should definitely be wearing masks.

An abundance of signs stressing hand washing and equipment cleaning protocol is helpful, at first, but eventually people become inured to them, he says.

PERSONAL CHOICE

To some degree, since guidance varies by city and state, your workout will be as safe as you choose to make it. Each facility is bound to have folks who are and aren’t following safety precautions.

Bottom line: Is it worth it?

Says Anderson: “For many people, I think the answer to that is yes. For some people, the answer to that is still no as we learn more and more about this disease and who is at most risk.”

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