Coronavirus and Gyms: Should You Work Out During a Pandemic?

Woman with towel around neck riding stationary bike during cycling class in fitness studio

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This article was written before mid-March when states and cities began enforcing closures of certain businesses to promote social distancing and help prevent the spread of new cases of COVID-19.

As such, many gyms have been closed until further notice. Please refer to your gym's website and local news updates for guidance.

As the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to swiftly spread across different regions, you may wonder how this disease outbreak can or will affect your day-to-day life—in particular, if you’re a regular gym-goer, you may wonder about the health risk of continuing your workout routine.

You probably have a lot of gym-and-coronavirus questions: Is it safe to go to the gym? How clean is the equipment at my gym? What about studio classes? Can coronavirus spread through sweat?

With the help of Dr. Tom Moorcroft, an infectious diseases doctor, and resources from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), here are answers to all of your questions about coronavirus and fitness, and some tips on how to keep yourself healthy while maintaining your fitness regimen.

Am I at Risk for Coronavirus at the Gym?

First, some good news: If you’re a regular gym-goer, there’s a good chance that your immune system is strong enough to keep coronavirus away, or at least minimize the effects of the illness.

The CDC reports that people in good health are less likely to contract the virus and less likely to experience additional complications, such as secondary infections, from COVID-19. The first large study on the novel coronavirus confirmed that people with pre-existing illnesses are more likely to get the virus and develop complications.

“Overall, the gym is likely a little safer than many other settings,” says Dr. Moorcroft. “Most people at the gym are in better physical condition than the general population and studies have shown that regular exercise, including intense and endurance exercise, improves immune system function. This may make gym goers less susceptible to developing COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus.”

Plus, Dr. Moorcroft says, “Regular exercise can help improve immune function and may minimize risk of serious illness if you are exposed to the coronavirus.” That alone may be enough encouragement to keep up your workout routine.

Doctor's Opinion

Most people who go to the gym regularly are in better physical condition than most, so you may be less susceptible to contracting viruses, including the novel coronavirus.

The Risk of Coronavirus in Gyms

However, if you’re still nervous about contracting coronavirus at the gym, Dr. Moorcroft has more good news for you: There is no evidence that COVID-19 can spread via sweat alone, which is something many gym-goers may worry about due to shared equipment.

The new coronavirus is spread via respiratory droplets, such as from a person’s cough or sneeze. So as long as you stay away from people who are coughing and sneezing at the gym (and follow the other tips from Dr. Moorcroft outlined later), the gym should not pose an elevated risk for a healthy person.

Dr. Moorcroft does note, however, that the risk of coronavirus in gyms depends on how common the virus is in your particular community. The more cases, the higher your risk will likely be, Dr. Moorcroft says. The risk also increases as the size of a gathering increases (more people in the gym or studio), especially indoors.

Takeaway

The risk of COVID-19 at your gym depends on how prevalent the virus is in your community.

Group Fitness Classes vs. Working Out Alone

“The closer you are to someone with the coronavirus the higher your likelihood of contracting the virus,” Dr. Moorcroft says. “Attending a group class could put you at higher risk than exercising in a more open area.”

Air circulation is also critical, he adds, so ask yourself if the room where your group class is held is well-ventilated or not.

And depending upon the type of exercise being performed in the class or in the weight room, there may be higher risk of transmission—heavy exertion, for example, has been known to lead to extra oral or nasal secretions flying. Use common sense in those instances, Dr. Moorcroft says.

The bottom line: The safest areas are open-aired or with very good ventilation, and not tightly packed.

So, Should You Go to the Gym?

Completely avoiding the gym is a personal choice at this point in time, Dr. Moorcroft says, adding that the coronavirus situation is changing rapidly, so you should check what’s going on in your area daily.

If you can do your workout elsewhere, such as at home, you automatically decrease your risk of contracting COVID-19, simply because you won’t be around other people and their respiratory droplets. 

If you are sick, you should not go to the gym, Dr. Moorcroft emphasizes. If you have body aches, a fever, cough, or shortness of breath, call your doctor to ask if you should be tested for COVID-19 and do your part to stop the spread of the virus by staying home. 

“Make your decision based upon how prevalent coronavirus is in your area, as well as how your gym keeps on top of cleaning and disinfecting and how well-ventilated it is,” Dr. Moorcroft says. “These are variables that are likely to change over the next weeks and months, so keep up to date with coronavirus in your area.”

How to Keep Yourself Safe from Coronavirus at the Gym

By taking a few simple precautions, you can further reduce your risk of COVID-19 exposure at the gym.

1. Wipe down everything you use, before and after you use it

It should be standard gym etiquette to wipe down every piece of equipment you use, but let this serve as another reminder.

Though there’s no evidence that COVID-19 spreads through sweat, a mixture of sweat and respiratory droplets can certainly cause transmission, Dr. Moorcroft says. “You may be at risk if you touch one of these surfaces and then touch your face,” he says. “Wiping down all exercise equipment before use is a good preventive practice.”

2. Wash your hands before and after your workout

Again, washing your hands should be something you do daily, especially after your workout, but make an extra point of doing so during the coronavirus outbreak. The CDC and the WHO maintain that frequent hand-washing is one of the best ways to minimize your risk of any virus, including the novel coronavirus.

For extra protection, you can keep a small bottle of hand sanitizer that is at least 60 percent alcohol in your gym bag and sanitize periodically during your workout.

3. Avoid touching your face with your hands

As mentioned in tip No. 1, the virus can be spread by contact with a surface that has recently had respiratory droplets land on it, and you may be at risk if you touch one of these surfaces—like a bench or dumbbell—and then touch your face. Dr. Moorcroft says experts aren’t sure exactly how long COVID-19 can survive on hard surfaces, but it may be anywhere from one to two hours, up to 48 hours.

4. Don’t touch the cap of your water bottle with unwashed hands

If you touch the cap of your water bottle with germy hands, you may increase your risk of contracting an illness. If you happen to touch the mouthpiece of your water bottle with unwashed hands, take the time to wash it, Dr. Moorcroft urges. Also, don’t share water bottles with anyone at the gym, not even if your gym buddy is your sibling — you just can’t be too safe right now.

5. If someone is coughing, distance yourself

Stay at least six feet away from anyone who is coughing or sneezing, Dr. Moorcroft says. There are many other illnesses that could cause these symptoms, so it is not necessary to stigmatize anyone who coughs. But the best practice is to avoid close contact with everyone, not just people who may exhibit symptoms of illness.

6. Eliminate fist bumps, handshakes, and high fives

As exciting as a new personal record on your deadlift is, you don’t know where someone else’s hands have been or if they’ve been following the public health guidelines for hand-washing.

It’s just safer to avoid touching hands in any way with anyone at the gym, so forego the celebratory fist bump. Elbow bumps might not be any better, Dr. Moorcroft adds.

7. Avoid peak workout times

It may not be possible for you to flex your schedule, but if you can, try working out at less popular times—you know, avoid the 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. rushes. Dr. Moorcroft says that the fewer people around, the better.

Working Out at Home

Exercising at home is the only way to avoid contracting coronavirus at the gym, because you won’t come into contact with other people while working out. If you’re super dedicated to your fitness routine, we know how tough it can be to stray from it—but you might be surprised at how fun and intense home workouts can be!

Here, we rounded up some of our very favorite at-home workouts for you to support your fitness routine during the coronavirus outbreak.

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  1.  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COVID-19 Situation Summary. Updated March 2020.

  2. Guan, Wei-jei, et al. Comorbidity and its impact on 1,590 patients with COVID-19 in China: A Nationwide Analysis. MedRXiv (preprint). 2020;27(3). doi.org/10.1101/2020.02.25.20027664

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How COVID-19 Spreads. Updated March 2020.

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