Gyms Are Reopening, But Is It Safe to Go Back?

A Guide to Returning to the Gym in the Age of Coronavirus

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Key Takeaways

  • With gyms reopening in parts of the country, it's more important than ever to get the facts about COVID-19 transmission and risk factors.
  • You may be eager to get back to your normal routine, but there are still precautions needed to keep your workouts safe.

Months after the economy shuttered in an effort to flatten the COVID-19 curve, what once seemed like a far-off dream is now becoming a reality: businesses, including our beloved gyms, are finally starting to reopen. But while the idea of trading your makeshift living-room workout for real barbells and high-tech machines is probably enough to make you giddy, you may be wondering: Is it really safe to go back?

That depends on a few factors. While there is no evidence that COVID-19 spreads through sweat, it does spread through respiratory droplets, and there’s some disagreement among scientists around how long those droplets live on surfaces and suspend in the air.

Andrew Noymer, PhD

There are still a lot of unknowns here. But [exercising in] an indoor facility is among the riskier activities you can do right now.

— Andrew Noymer, PhD

Dr. Andrew Noymer, an epidemiologist and associate professor of population health and disease prevention at the University of California, Irvine, says that people deciding whether to return to the gym will have to ask themselves two important questions. “First, what is their own personal tolerance for risk? Are they a risk-taker, or are they conservative on taking risks?” he says.

“The other is: What are their own consequences for getting infected? Are they immunosuppressed? Are they older?” Risk-averse and immunodeficient exercisers will likely benefit from avoiding the gym for now, until better measures, treatments, or even vaccines are rolled out. 

With these facts in mind, here’s how you can stay safe when you do decide to head back to the gym.

Know the Facts About Transmission, and Act Accordingly

The best way to keep yourself and your loved ones safe during the pandemic is to understand how coronavirus is spread. “The general rule is, the fewer people crammed together, the better,” says Dr. John Townes, an infectious disease expert and professor of medicine at Oregon Health & Science University.

Townes explains that the formula for COVID-19 transmission is as follows: the number of people you’ve been in contact with x the probability of infection x the duration that that person is contagious. “You can do the math and find out how many people that one person can infect,” he says.

But without widespread testing, it can be impossible to know exactly who is infected to begin with. “We know that people who have been infected may excrete the virus for a day or two before they experience symptoms,” says Townes. “And the symptoms at the time of onset may be so subtle that it’s difficult to know when someone is sick or contagious. So everyone needs to do their part to reduce the amount of virus that they may be spreading in the environment.”

“Doing your part” means sticking to all those guidelines the CDC has encouraged—wearing masks, social distancing, and washing hands—remains just as important in a gym setting.

Ask Questions

You know the risks, and you’re ready to responsibly return to the gym. Here’s what to ask management at your facility before getting back on that treadmill. 

Are you following state and county guidelines for reopening?

If you’re concerned about public health, you should be closely following the news about your community’s plan to reopen businesses. But if you’re unclear on how your state or county’s phases work, it doesn’t hurt to ask your gym directly if they’re adhering to local guidelines. Regulations around cleaning, building capacity, and mask-wearing vary from state to state and county to county.

What are your new cleaning procedures?

For peace of mind, confirm your gym is adhering to CDC-directed cleaning guidelines for public spaces. Noymer says the fitness industry is hyper-aware of their responsibility to keep equipment sanitized and expects gym-goers will notice an uptick in regular sanitization during business hours. “In the majority of cases, answers are going to be reassuring about cleaning,” he says.

Is there a social distancing policy in place? How many people per square foot are allowed to enter the premises?

Most government regulations require gyms to create new occupancy numbers that allow patrons a 6-foot radius while working out. Check with your gym to confirm they’re limiting entry and providing plenty of space for members to safely exercise. 

Protect Yourself and Others

Gym staff are working around the clock to keep you safe, but your actions play a big part in stopping infection, too. Here are several precautions you can take when you hit the gym.

Stay 6 feet away from other patrons

While social distancing may seem like a part of daily life now, don’t be surprised if you find yourself forgetting about it when you’re back in your familiar gym surroundings. “[The gym] is a social place, and people want to talk and have fun together,” says Townes. “But the safest way to protect people around you is to keep to yourself.” Make a mental note to choose equipment that’s well-spaced from others, and stick to air hugs and high fives with your gym pals for now.

Keep your hands clean

While masks help alleviate airborne particles, they don’t completely stop the spread of viral droplets. That’s why it’s paramount to continue washing and sanitizing your hands and high-touch surfaces. “We know that the virus lives on stainless steel and plastic surfaces for up to a few days,” says Townes. “If you pick that up on your hands and rub your eye, nose, or mouth, you may infect yourself that way.” 

Upon reopening, most gyms will have increased the frequency of cleaning procedures. But the best way to guarantee you don’t spread the virus is to wipe down equipment both before and after use, plus wash your hands before and after your workout.

John Townes, MD

Hand hygiene is completely important. I can’t emphasize that enough.

— John Townes, MD

Wear a mask, if possible

Here’s where things get tricky. “The [number of droplets] you put into the environment is a function of how much you’re breathing or how loudly you’re shouting or grunting,” says Townes. “So you can imagine that if people are breathing heavily, they’re more likely to be putting out more virus than someone sitting quietly.” 

Townes says that while wearing a mask is likely to help stop transmission, it can be difficult in a gym setting. “How practical is that?” he asks. “If you’re doing aerobic exercise, it’s not that easy to do.” But with many gyms requiring or recommending masks for entry, it may be our new normal, and something we’re just going to have to accept in order to prevent another outbreak. “A lot of people probably don’t want to do a workout class wearing an N95 mask,” Noymer says. “But maybe people will get used to it.”

Focus on the task at hand

Before the pandemic, we spent our energy at the gym focusing on our own goals. Now that our attention is diverted—“Did I remember to wash my hands when I arrived? Is this mask on correctly?”—we’re more likely to get distracted. Once you’re set up for a lift or routine, do your best to focus on your own form and safety to prevent injury.

Know It’s OK to Stay Home

Not feeling comfortable with the idea of heading back to the gym quite yet? There are plenty of at-home workouts you can do to stay healthy and isolated from possible infection (and if you’re finding it difficult to stick to your routine, that’s OK too!). Try some of our favorite free online workouts until you’re feeling ready to get back out there.

What This Means For You

It’s important to keep your own risk tolerance in mind when deciding whether to go back to the gym. So long as you take the proper precautions to protect yourself and others, there’s not necessarily a right or wrong way to ease back into your old routines—it will just require a little caution along the way. “We’re in the land of tradeoffs regarding risk versus reward, and we all need to calibrate our tolerance,” says epidemiologist Andrew Noymer. “It’s a new reality, but it’s one we can figure out.”

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  1. CDC. How to protect yourself and others. Updated April 24, 2020.

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