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Is it safe to return to the gym? How to protect yourself against COVID-19 as gyms reopen.

Gyms and fitness centers across Pennsylvania are allowed to reopen. Is it safe to go? We break down the risks.

CrossFit Royalty in Trooper has been empty throughout the coronavirus pandemic. Members have rented out the equipment that was previously in the gym.
CrossFit Royalty in Trooper has been empty throughout the coronavirus pandemic. Members have rented out the equipment that was previously in the gym.Read moreCourtesy CrossFit Royalty

Gyms and fitness centers across Pennsylvania are now open — though only at 50% occupancy.

Masks must be worn at all times when indoors, and in Philadelphia, classes are limited to 10 people or fewer. Fitness centers are encouraged to operate by appointment only and prioritize outdoor activities.

My gym is now open — but is it safe to go?

Going to the gym is another risk-versus-benefit scenario, but many epidemiologists say they don’t plan to return anytime soon.

“Gyms are an area where we go to sweat, and we’re breathing heavily,” says Krys Johnson, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at Temple University. “When you’re in close proximity to others who are doing the same thing, it can be a high-risk environment, and because people can be asymptomatic and presymptomatic, it’s personally too much of a risk for me.

In a New York Times survey released in June of more than 500 epidemiologists, 42% said it’ll be anywhere from three months to a year before they return, and 40% estimate they’ll skip out on the gym even longer than that.

The main problem with gyms? Other people.

Should I wear a mask at the gym?

Yes, and it’s a requirement in Pennsylvania.

With a virus that’s primarily spread through respiratory droplets, you don’t want to be near people huffing and puffing. If it feels hard to breathe, consider lowering the intensity.

» READ MORE: How to run or bike while wearing a mask

What gyms should do to lower your risk

Appointments are strongly encouraged for all indoor recreation and health and wellness facilities. At some gyms, they’ll be required, like City Fitness, where you’ll book a time slot as you would a group fitness class. For those that don’t use a reservation system, don’t be surprised if you get turned away at the door. Capacity must be reduced to 50%.

Gyms are required to follow social distancing and cleaning rules from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Pennsylvania Department of Health. Some gyms provide a list of cleaning protocols on their websites. Many have changed their hours to allow for nightly deep cleanings, regularly disinfect equipment and high-touch surfaces with medical-grade cleaning products, and now have additional sanitizing stations.

Most gyms have also rearranged their rooms to provide more space between equipment. Some machines may be blocked off. It’s all to help gym-goers with social distancing — dubbed “Social Fitnessing” by Planet Fitness.

Clear barriers are common at front desk and reception areas. You’ll also find some larger gym chains, like Planet Fitness, encouraging members to download smartphone apps that allow for a touchless check-in and checking crowd levels. And locker room use may be limited.

What you should do to lower your risk

Call your gym to ask about what safety protocols they’re taking. If you have a gut feeling that they’re not doing enough, you may want to delay your return.

Ask questions like:

  1. How is the 50% capacity requirement being enforced?

  2. How often is equipment cleaned by staff?

  3. Are wipes and sanitizer provided for members to use?

  4. How is exercise equipment being spaced out?

  5. Will the windows be open? What does the ventilation system look like?

  6. What happens if a member is seen not wearing a mask?

If you choose to return, understand your gym routine might look different. For starters, you may want to shorten your workout.

“The longer you’re there, the more risk you have,” says Eric Sachinwalla, medical director of Infection Prevention and Control at Einstein Medical Center Philadelphia. “If you have the ability to scale back, or mix things up by doing your cardio outside, stick to that.”

Wipe down machines before and after use, and remember the basics: regular hand-washing and keeping six feet or more of distance away from others remain crucial.

“Sanitize your hands before you even get started,” says Johnson, who also encourages keeping a distance of two machines or more between you and the next person.

The CDC points out that you should avoid items that can’t be easily disinfected between use, such as resistance bands and weightlifting belts. Some gyms may remove items, like foam rollers, with crevices that are hard to clean.

BYOBottle for water, and bring your own towel, too. Putting your face close to a communal water fountain increases your likelihood of coming into contact with something that’s contaminated. And a towel will help prevent you from wiping your face with potentially contaminated hands once you start sweating.

“Just be careful with the towel, you want to fold it so that the part that’s touching your face isn’t touching other surfaces,” says Johnson. “Unfold it to wipe your face, and then refold it before you put it back down.”

Skip the group fitness classes, experts say. Most group classes keep you in an enclosed room, for an hour or more, often without the best ventilation. This increases your risk, and if you’re doing circuits where you’re sharing equipment, your risk goes up even more.

Choose low-intensity activities over high-intensity activities when inside. Yoga is a safer option than, say, spinning, says the CDC, which advises moving all vigorous exercise outdoors.

Some local studios are offering outdoor group classes. Check with your gym to see what your options are.

And again, if you can switch your entire workout outdoors, you might want to forgo the gym all together right now.

“There are ways to exercise that are safer than others — I’m not going back to my gym right now,” says Sachinwalla. “I know not everyone has equipment at home, and if weightlifting is what gets you moving, then understanding the risks and the mitigations strategies the gym is putting in place is an important starting place.”

» READ MORE: How to do everything better right now: A collection of our most useful stories

Expert sources:
  1. Krys Johnson, PhD, MPH, epidemiologist and assistant professor at Temple University.

  2. Eric Sachinwalla, MD, medical director of Infection Prevention and Control at Einstein Medical Center Philadelphia