There are many physical and mental benefits that come with regular physical exercise. During a time when stress levels are particularly high, as we all navigate the new normal of life during a pandemic, maintaining an exercise routine has become a welcome respite for many. During the recent spring and summer months, it's been easier for people to get outside for a brisk walk, run or bike ride. However, the transition into fall and winter will lead many people to shift their exercise routines indoors to either their home or a nearby gym.
Gyms around the country were forced to close in March 2020, as states issued various stay-at-home and business closure mandates in an attempt to stop the spread of COVID-19. Many gyms have since reopened, but are they safe? There's still a lot we don't know about the coronavirus. However, we do have a basic understanding of how the virus spreads and how long it lives on different surfaces. This information is helpful when considering whether a return to the gym is safe.
If you do choose to hit the gym again, there are specific safety precautions you should be on the lookout for, as well as safety protocols you should follow to ensure your return to the gym is as safe as possible. Despite these precautions, you may still prefer alternatives to the gym for staying healthy. Luckily, there are also plenty of ways to maintain a healthy exercise routine while at home.
How to Stay Safe at the Gym
Gyms are a haven for germs. A group of people sharing the same equipment while sweating and breathing in a confined space is exactly the kind of environment where germs thrive. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), COVID-19 spreads through direct or indirect contact. Direct contact transmission requires physical contact between an infected person and another individual. Indirect contact transmission happens when a person touches a contaminated surface and becomes infected. Gym members and staff can be diligent about cleaning, and the use of air filtration systems may help, but these steps can't eliminate the threat of coronavirus altogether.
Safety Measures to Be on the Lookout for When Choosing a Gym
Keep in mind that coronavirus can linger on certain surfaces for two to three days. This sounds dire, but there are precautions you can take. Before you reach for the gym bag, first take a look at your state's regulations concerning gyms. By understanding these, it'll be easier to determine if your gym is following all of the safety recommendations that are outlined. You can also call ahead to find out if your gym is doing temperature checks. Once inside, look around to see if staff and other gym members are regularly sanitizing equipment and that social distancing guidelines are being followed.
Things You Can Do to Stay Safe At the Gym
If you're sick or have been around someone who's been sick, stay home. When you go to the gym, make sure you wear a mask. Evidence suggests that coronavirus may spread through aerosol transmission. Small droplets, like the kind you exhale when exercising, may linger in enclosed, poorly ventilated environments for hours.
"Sweating is not the issue, but running or bicycling in a gym can lead to more of the possibility of aerosolized droplets being expelled that can infect surfaces and spread through the air," said Tony Abate, Vice President and Chief Technical Officer at AtmosAir Solutions.
Also, remember to bring your own water bottle to the gym, since shared water fountains won't likely be available. Keep the lid on when not in use. Bring your own sweat towel and avoid the locker room. When you're done with the day's workout, be sure to wash or sanitize your hands. Finally, have a routine in mind before you walk in the door.
"Plan ahead to make sure you know what workout you want to complete," said Dr. Giuseppe Aragona of PrescriptionDoctor.com. "When you are planning your workouts, consider work that lessens your contact with shared equipment."
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Alternatives to the Gym
Increased safety precautions are great, but you may still feel uncomfortable with the idea of going to a gym. Fortunately, there are a lot of other options.
"A person can do some cardio workouts at home to stay healthy," said Dr. Waqas Ahmad. Ahmad is a family medical physician and runs the Medical Advisory Board at the life and health insurance agency Insurecast. "Many personal trainers and gyms are offering virtual sessions and classes, which can help keep you accountable and give you social connection."
You can also find free content on YouTube or download an exercise app to your device, like Nike Training Club and Zombies, Run!. Depending on your local climate, exercising outside throughout the fall and winter months may still be an option, too. You can consider purchasing athletic gear that's more suitable for colder and more inclement weather conditions to help keep you exercising outdoors throughout the year. And if weight training is your thing, check online for a set of weights that meets your budget and your needs.
Some people like the social aspect of going to the gym. This is still possible if you have Zoom, Google Meet or a similar program. For those with the budget, you could also invest in a Peloton bike and do spin classes with people from around the world.
The Bottom Line
Most gyms across the U.S. were forced to close during the early months of the pandemic. Many have since reopened and are taking precautions to keep members safe. If you're considering working out at a gym, make sure you bring a mask, sanitize equipment before and after use, and practice social distancing. Also, check to see if your gym is conducting temperature checks and is following local regulations. If you'd still prefer to avoid the gym during the pandemic, there are a lot of alternatives to consider, including training from home using YouTube or apps downloaded to a device.
(Photo by Aleksandar Georgiev/ GettyImages)