Your Guide to Staying Safe at the Gym

Are you eager to lose the “COVID-15” you gained in quarantine? 

As restrictions ease up, many will flock back to the gym or begin exercising again to maintain health, lose weight, or just alleviate pent-up energy and anxiety. However, the thought of going to the gym nowadays may cause more stress than it can relieve. Since gyms are usually indoors in confined spaces full of people breathing heavily and using shared equipment, they present the ideal opportunity for coronavirus to spread. 

This doesn’t mean you have to skip Zumba class or quit your sports team, but you do need to be mindful of where and how you exercise. We’ll cover what types of gyms you should go to, rules like wearing masks for working out, and tips for those who want to exercise but don’t need gyms.

 

Gyms in a COVID-19 world

First, if you want to exercise, should you even go to the gym?

Experts say to think twice. “When you have a relatively high density of people exercising and sweating in a contained space, you have conditions where communicable diseases can spread easily,” says Dr. James Voos, a chairman of orthopedic surgery, in an interview with the New York Times. People considered high-risk for coronavirus should avoid the gym. This means people who are 65 and older, have underlying health conditions like diabetes or heart disease, or those who are immunosuppressed. Alternatives are exercising at home or outdoors, which we’ll explore later in this article. 

“But, I need a gym,” you insist. There are risks when you go to the gym nowadays, but there are also plenty of ways to mitigate them. First, it’s a good idea to stay away from small gyms and those with little ventilation. “Your best bet is going to be a gym that is larger, able to have windows open or multiple floors or levels to allow for physical distancing,” said Dr. Nikita Desai, a pulmonologist with the Cleveland Clinic, in an interview with NPR.  When you’re strenuously exercising you tend to draw in and exhale more air. More space and more airflow dilute the concentration of the virus in the air, reducing the risk for transmission. Since the coronavirus has been proven to spread asymptomatically, people who don’t even know they’re infected may still be on the weight machine next to you.

Before returning to your gym, you should find out what protective and sanitation measures it has in place. Gyms will most likely limit the number of people allowed in at any one time, so you may need to reserve a time slot. It’s also a good idea to go during off-hours when there is less ‘people traffic,’ and skip the gym shower for now and shower at home.

Some questions you can ask your gym’s management are:

  • How well-ventilated is the area?
  • What products are you using for sanitation?
  • Do you have hand sanitizer stations? How many?
  • Is there easy access to sinks with soap?
  • Will the employees be wearing masks and/or standing behind sneeze guards?
  • Do you have a plentiful supply of disinfectant bottles, clean cloths, or bleach wipes?
  • How often are you cleaning?
  • Have you moved the equipment to be more than six feet apart?

 

Masks for working out and best practices for sanitization

When you visit the gym, it’s important to have your eyes wide open and take proper precautions.  First, what should you bring?

We suggest:

  • Your own water bottle (many gyms have even gotten rid of drinking fountains).
  • At least one of your own clean towels
  • Your own mat for yoga or similar exercises
  • Hand sanitizer
  • A face mask that’s easy to breathe out of

Masks are usually encouraged at most gyms, not required. Of course, when you’re doing aerobic exercises like running or spinning, wearing a mask may not be practical. You need to be able to breathe comfortably, and sweat also dampens the mask, making it feel like a sauna. But experts recommend that you wear a mask when you enter the gym, at the front desk, in the locker room, and the bathroom.

When it comes to masks for working out, comfort, breathability, and protective abilities are the qualities you need to look for. Masks with ultra-breathable fabric are a good choice so they don’t feel as heavy and suffocating as standard masks. However, you also need to make sure that they are effective enough to filter out harmful particles and repel bacteria and pathogens. Of course, remove your mask if you ever feel suffocated, dizzy, or lightheaded during exercise.

Masks are one critical part of staying safe at the gym. Social distancing by staying at least six feet apart is imperative in gym and exercise environments. Experts recommending doubling that to 12 feet. One big reason is heavy breathing in exercise. “We don’t know exactly how far virus particles travel when people are breathing heavily,” says immunologist Doug Reed. “When you are exercising, you’re going to be breathing out and breathing in more than you normally would. And so, the potential for being infected or spreading the infection would be that much higher.”

Your gym should also have plenty of disinfectant spray bottles, clean cloths, and bleach wipes that meet the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards against coronavirus. However, maintaining a sanitary environment is not just up to the gym staff. You need to be diligent about cleaning the equipment and surfaces you come into contact with to prevent transmission to other gym-goers. This includes weights, bars, benches, machine rails, and knobs before and after every use. You also shouldn’t assume that other gym-goers have scrubbed the equipment properly before you used it. A formula for disinfecting equipment and surfaces you touch is, “Wash, spray, wait, wipe, repeat.” Spray the disinfectant and give it a minute to kill the germs before wiping.

 

Group fitness and team sports

What about group fitness classes? Think twice, because it can be hard to stay six feet apart when you’re moving in a class. A small study from South Korea analyzed fitness classes at 12 different sports facilities. Coronavirus infections spread quickly in dance fitness classes with up to 22 students, but there was no spread in yoga/Pilates classes with up to eight participants. If you still want to take group fitness classes, make sure the class size is small and you can stay six to twelve feet away from others.

Team sports can be even tougher to accommodate. Sports that involve equipment traveling between people, like volleyball or basketball, are risky. Other shared equipment to sanitize are protective gear, balls, bats, racquets, mats, or water bottles. In tennis, it’s easier to observe social distancing, but you still need to follow precautionary measures like sanitizing your hands, avoiding touching your face after handling equipment, and wiping down your equipment with disinfectant. You should still stay at least six feet apart from other players even if you are playing doubles, avoid sharing drinks and towels, and don’t shake hands or give high-fives.

The CDC has established how risky different sporting activities are, including youth sports: 

  • Lower risk: Performing drills or conditioning at home alone or with family.
  • Increasing risk: Within-team competitions and practices.
  • Higher risk: Full competition between teams from the same geographic area.
  • Highest risk: Full competition between teams from different geographic activities.

It’s hard for players to wear masks during their games. Babies and children under two should also not wear face coverings. However, coaches, sports staff, officials, parents, and spectators should wear face coverings as much as possible. Team organizers should supply hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol, soap, paper towels, tissues, and no-touch/foot pedal trash cans. The CDC suggests designating a COVID-19 Point of Contact to be responsible for coronavirus-related concerns.

The biggest risk of catching coronavirus is indoors, so exercising outdoors when possible is a safer alternative. When you exercise outdoors, you can control how close you get to people and transmission is less likely. As microbiologist Joshua Santarpia said, “Outdoors you have sunlight which has been shown to quickly inactivate the virus. And outside airflow and humidity help dilute it.”

It’s best to exercise solo, which will suit runners, bikers, walkers, and hikers. The right time, place, and conditions matter. Get outside when a lot of people aren’t around to areas with minimal or no crowds. Second, avoid staying behind one person for a long period of time, since an infected individual can be exhaling or coughing out infectious droplets. A third best practice is to avoid touching areas like stair railings or benches that a lot of other people have touched because infectious droplets can linger on surfaces. 

Regarding the issue of masks during outdoor exercise, you still should wear masks when you can. Exceptions include having underlying respiratory conditions like asthma. If you’re walking or exercising outdoors without having a close chat with anyone, it’s okay to take your mask off. Experts suggest taking the mask off without touching the front, because fiddling with the front makes viral transmission easier, particularly if your finger finds your nose, eye, or mouth. After your outdoor activity, your mask may be damp with sweat and nasal excretions, especially if it’s hot and humid. When you go home, wash your mask and your hands thoroughly with soap and water—these days, you can’t be too careful.

 

Alternatives to the gym

There are plenty of options besides the gym to get your endorphin fix. You can exercise at home, whether it’s with weights, stretching, the treadmill, or online fitness classes. Many gyms are offering deals where they offer unlimited monthly fitness classes on Zoom for $99 or cheaper. The Internet is also chock full of free classes right now. Yoga enthusiasts especially will have an abundance of choices given the popularity of yoga.

Additionally, you can buy cardio equipment for your home. Peloton bikes were one of the biggest fitness crazes in lockdown, but since they are typically over two thousand dollars, there are plenty of inexpensive ellipticals, bikes, and treadmills to choose from. You save yourself commuting time, avoid the risk of catching and transmitting the coronavirus, and also can save yourself from the costs of a gym membership. You also don’t have to wear a mask—unless, of course, others are around and also exercising near you.

What if you or a loved one is 65 or older? Many senior citizens can get by with a few short intervals of two or three minutes of movement throughout the day, as geriatrics professor Dr. Louise Aronson told the New York Times. She advised seniors to walk from room to room during TV commercial breaks, up and down a hallway three times a day, or climb a flight or two of stairs. Even starting an indoor garden is a great way to get people out of their chairs and moving around.  

 

Ease back into it

Let’s face it: many of us have been sedentary during quarantine. If you start up again too enthusiastically or try to jump back into the fitness level you were before, you risk serious injury. Don’t forget that you’ll now have to factor in wearing masks at the gym. A best practice is to start up slowly and rev your workouts back up—also slowly. Startup at half the level of fitness you were before the pandemic; for example, if you did 30 minutes of the elliptical, try for 15 minutes when you’re revving back up. Since many people have been sitting a lot more since they were quarantined, stretching is also critical to help tight back muscles.

 

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Going to the gym is a different experience now, but it doesn’t mean you have to cut it out of your life. Check the rules of your facility, sanitize and disinfect whenever possible, skip the showers, and wear comfortable masks for working out. Whether you’re at a gym or not, exercise will help you manage your health and keep your spirits up in these stressful times.

 

Photo by Victor Freitas from Pexels

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