A New CDC Report Shows How COVID Can Spread At The Gym

Plus, how to stay safe while getting your reps in.

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Whether you used to be a daily gym-goer or a weekend Zumba class-er, it's likely been disorienting to have your exercise routine so shaken up by the pandemic. Sure, you've gotten into a decent stride of at-home workouts, but as vaccines are rolling out, you might be tempted to pack up your yoga mat and go back to your local studio instead. But according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there's still a big risk of COVID exposure at the gym.

How Does COVID-19 Spread In Gyms?

Your safest bet for working out seems to be avoiding workouts inside your gym, NPR reports. Even if you're keeping your distance from other people and wiping down your equipment before and after use, these safety precautions just aren't enough if everyone isn't masked during workouts.

New research shows that even when masks and temperature checks are required upon entry into your favorite fitness locale, gyms can still pose high COVID risks. Over the summer in Honolulu, HI, 21 people caught COVID from a cycling instructor who had COVID but still taught for three days. ABC reports that the cycling facility kept its doors and windows closed during classes, which increased the likelihood of COVID spreading.

But just because your gym has decent ventilation doesn't mean it's super safe to go back. At the end of February, the CDC released stats from a gym in Chicago, IL that hosted indoor high-intensity fitness classes during the summer of 2020. Of 81 attendees, 55 got COVID. Of the folks who were infected, nearly 85% wore their masks infrequently during classes, and 78% attended at least one class while they were still contagious.

Is Working Out Without A Mask Dangerous?

Though the Hawaii and Chicago incidents are two of the relatively few examples of data about COVID in fitness facilities, the CDC says on their site that the "outbreak reports indicate that increased respiratory exertion might facilitate transmission." In other words, the harder you're breathing, the farther your breath (and potential virus particles) are spreading — and the bigger gasps of air you're taking in from the folks around you. The harder you and your gym mates are working out without a mask in proximity to each other, the riskier your exercise is. So where your mask while you work up a sweat — it's an important way to keep you and the folks around you safe.

What Are The Safest Ways To Use The Gym During COVID?

“The idea is to limit your movement outside with other people to what's truly essential,” Dr. Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH, WebMD’s Senior Medical Director, previously told Bustle. So try avoiding the gym as much as possible, opting for outdoor, solo workouts instead. And if you do head to the gym, the available data about COVID in gyms suggests that it's not enough to mask up only when you enter the building. The CDC recommends keeping masks on and maintaining at least six feet of distance from others, even during high-intensity exercise.

Exercising outdoors or virtually at home is the most effective way to work out with a more limited risk of getting or spreading COVID, according to the CDC. It might feel tough to work out intensely while wearing a mask, but it also keeps you and those around you safer. So if you're going to dive into super intense exercise outside the house, the CDC suggests that it's far better to do so outdoors than indoors, maintaining distance and wearing masks.

How To Disinfect Your Workout Equipment During The Pandemic

If you feel like you must be in your gym, don't forget the basics of keeping equipment as clean as possible. "Respiratory infections are often spread by touching a surface with the virus on it, and then touching our mouth or eyes," says Dr. Michael Richardson, MD, a family medicine doctor with One Medical. "Since we are often wiping sweat from our face while at the gym, be sure that you are [cleaning] the equipment you’re touching before using it."

In addition to spraying and wiping down your equipment both before and after use with alcohol or bleach-based disinfectant, you'll also want to make sure you're washing your hands thoroughly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds; wash your water bottles daily with dish soap; and if you're going to wipe sweat from your face or mouth, make sure you use a clean towel.

What Gyms & Workout Studios Are Doing To Protect Against Coronavirus

The gyms that have re-opened in accordance with their local government protocols have often intensified their cleaning protocols per CDC standards, required masks and temperature checks upon entry, and limited capacity. Still, the studio in Chicago where the COVID outbreak happened had limited their classes to 10 to 15 people, and it didn't prevent the virus's spread because of a lack of safe masking practices.

This suggests that requiring masks just on entry doesn't matter so much once people start breathing heavily in the midst of their workouts — so check in with your gym about whether they're requiring people to keep their masks on the entire time they're in the building. You'll also want to make sure the gym is well-ventilated, or — better yet — only hosting classes that are masked, distanced, and outdoors.

How To Clean Yoga Mats & Blocks While You're Working Out At Home

You may not have a full set of weights or a treadmill at home, but if you have a yoga mat or blocks, you can get a ton of great workouts in. However, you need to be cleaning these (very porous!) surfaces regularly.

Paul Javid, CEO of Alo Moves, an on-demand fitness, meditation, and yoga app, recommends using a cleaner made with at least 70% alcohol to sanitize your yoga mat and blocks during the pandemic. "While this typically is not recommended for the durability of your yoga mats, to protect against COVID-19, we recommend this extra precaution," he adds. To get rid of that clinical smell, you can wipe down your mat with a soft cloth and a mild detergent (just regular soap and water is fine), or soak it in your bathtub in a solution of soap and water. Then, hang it up to dry. "For extra precaution, we recommend repeating these steps every two weeks to keep your yoga mat clean, especially if you plan on using your mat daily," Javid says.

Taking a break from working out is also more than OK, especially if you're not feeling well. Your body needs time to rest and recover. "It's also incredibly considerate to other gym-goers if you rest or switch to a home routine when you are sick," Dr. Richardson says. This is especially important given that the gym-related COVID infections in Hawaii occurred when someone who had COVID went in to fitness classes. "You can feel good about getting a strong sweat in while also protecting the health of your fellow fit friends at the gym."


Dr. Michael Richardson, a family medicine doctor with One Medical

Dr. Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH, WebMD’s Senior Medical Director

Paul Javid, CEO of Alo Moves, an on-demand fitness, meditation, and yoga app

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