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How — If At All — Can Gyms & Workout Classes Reopen Safely in a Pandemic?

At this point in the coronavirus pandemic, many states have relaxed social distancing guidelines and cautiously given businesses and schools the green-light to reopen — including gyms. But is it safe to go back to your beloved workout spot, with hot sweaty bodies immediately to your right and left? And if you do decide to go, how do you protect yourself? Even though businesses are reopening (and even if you’re young and healthy), coronavirus transmission is definitely still possible. We talked to experts about the risks to know before you go break a sweat at the studio. 

Gyms must change to keep people safe

Dr. Amesh Adalja, Senior Scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, tells SheKnows that gyms and workout classes can reopen safely by following a few important guidelines. “These venues need to modify their operations to allow social distancing by limiting capacity, spacing equipment, enhancing cleaning, and screening employees and patrons for signs and symptoms of COVID,” he says. Dr. Adalja also mentions that employees and guests will need to use face coverings. Even though masks are not foolproof in germy gyms, they will help mitigate the spread. 

Public health experts haven’t really put a firm protocol in place for gyms reopening. That means it’s up to a lot of states, local health departments, and individual gyms to create their own plans to keep guests safe. For example, in California all fitness classes must take place outdoors, and employees and patrons are required to wear masks when they aren’t doing strenuous workouts that would make it hard to breathe. In New York, gyms and fitness centers are restricted to a 33 percent occupancy limit. Even boutique classes like Barry’s Bootcamp have moved their signature Red Room outdoors. 

Here’s the bottom line: Don’t go back to the gym if you’re not confident that it’s sanitary. And if you do go out, be extra diligent about cleaning and following safety protocols. 

Keeping sick people out

Dr. Joshua L. Santarpia, Associate Professor of Pathology and Microbiology at UNMC, believes that gyms and group classes can be reasonably safe, as long as effective intervention strategies can be implemented. “I think that the number one thing that we can do to make gyms safer is to try and prevent sick people from coming,” he says. 

At the moment, that means self-monitoring for symptoms and staying home, if you don’t feel well. “Luckily, for many of us, the gym is the last place you want to be if you’re sick, but we know that presymptomatic or only mildly ill people might still be able to spread the virus,” continues Dr. Santarpia. “Hopefully in the future, we will have access to rapid and inexpensive testing that improves our ability to know if we’ve been infected, but in the meantime, being aware of changes in your health can still make a big difference.”

For now, it’s smart to take your temperature and monitor symptoms before you head to your workout appointment, and continually err on the side of caution if you’re not feeling 100%. 

What you can do

The CDC has guidelines for gyms and fitness centers that detail workplace health protocol, but it’s still a good idea to check (and double check) what particular measures your gym is enacting to keep patrons secure too. Dr. Adalja emphasizes that gyms will need to “develop a response plan when they inevitably have a case or exposure involving their facility.”

If you do decide to go to the gym, tread carefully, especially if you are in an area with a higher number of COVID-19 cases. “Clearly, most people can’t exercise in an N95, but even multi-layer cloth masks have some demonstrated effectiveness, and make it much easier to breathe,” notes Dr. Santarpia. (Seriously, wear your damn mask.)

Carrying your own cleaning supplies or personal spray bottle is also smart. Wipe down equipment before and after use, and wash your hands often. Even though most gyms really are doing a good job, members still have a role to play in keeping the spaces safe. 

Too, virtual classes aren’t going away, so if you’re unsure about returning to the gym, you can still stick to at-home sessions.  

When to avoid the gym

A crowded gym or exercise room is still something to avoid, unless there’s fresh air exchange. (Dr. Santarpia says that when possible, it makes the most sense to move group classes outdoors.) You should also avoid the gym if you have underlying health conditions that make you more susceptible to COVID-19.  

So, is going back to the gym vital, and worth the risk of getting sick or potentially spreading the virus to others? It is mentally rejuvenating to live life with a sense of normalcy again. It’s good for your mental health to socialize with workout buddies and get your body moving. But just because gyms are reopening, doesn’t mean everyone will (or should) go. 

It’s ultimately up to whether you feel comfortable doing so, and if you trust your gym and those around you to keep the space safe. If you’re still on the fence, there’s no need to rush your decision. Safety guidelines are changing every day, and your thoughts might change as the pandemic progresses. 

Before you panic about potentially returning to the gym, check out our favorite affordable at-home gym equipment:

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