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You are thinking of going back to the gym... Should you?

The pandemic has forced you to become very sedentary. You spend hours sitting and eating more than you used to. You want to get back into shape. Gyms have started reopening and you are thinking about joining one. You’ve been going to the grocery store once a week and have been feeling reasonably safe. The stores have been reorganized to ensure your safety. Yes, you encounter other people there, but everyone is wearing a mask. You try to make it in and out, but it still takes you about an hour. You think that the gym experience should not be that different. Are you right?

What does the research show?

Most states have allowed the reopening of gyms and fitness facilities with a variety of safety measures and limits on how many people can be inside.

A study from Norway showed that there was little difference in the number of COVID-19 infections in a group of 3,000 people who either worked at a gym and regularly washed their hands and followed social distancing measures, compared to those who stayed home. That may sound reassuring, but you shouldn’t jump into conclusions because the study was conducted in an area with a low rate of coronavirus infections. The results could have been different if the study was conducted in an area with a higher COVID-19 rate.

On the other hand, researchers in South Korea determined that more than 100 people contracted COVID-19 from fitness dance classes at a dozen sports facilities. The infections seemed to have stemmed from the instructors. Large class sizes, small spaces, and the intensity of the workouts may have contributed to the transmission to the students.

The airflow in a gym may be another concerning factor. A study in a restaurant setting from early in the pandemic showed that air conditioners can circulate respiratory droplets and spread COVID-19.

How to make the decision?

You will have to decide for yourself whether going to a gym is right for you. If you have preexisting conditions like diabetes, heart disease or cancer, are very overweight or immunocompromised, training at a gym might not be in your best health interest. The same criterion will apply if you or anyone you live with is over age 65 or at risk of severe illness.

You should also check what your gym is doing to mitigate risk. Is the gym limiting the number of participants, mandating masks and is organized to ensure social distancing? Is the gym using  cleaning products effective against COVID-19?

If you are not comfortable going to the gym you should find out if your gym is offering web-based classes so you can get some guidance from the safety of your home. Some gyms even offer an outdoor fitness class, which by allowing distance could be considered low risk. Independent of the gym you can always find a YouTube workout that matches your fitness level.

If you decide to go to the gym

Can you maintain 6 feet social distance at the gym? Are members wearing a mask when possible? This might not be possible during high intensity training, as masks can make it harder to breathe, in which case distancing is a must. Can you avoid sharing equipment like free weights, yoga mats and resistance bands? If this is not possible check if those are regularly cleaned by the gym staff.

The WHO and the CDC recommend preventive measures at the gym. Don’t go if you feel sick. Limit indoor group classes, especially the high intensity ones because they increase the number of breaths you take leading to more respiratory droplets in the room. Low intensity classes like Pilates and yoga are safer. Follow social distancing rules when entering and exiting the gym and when using the pool, walking tracks and locker rooms. Wear a face mask when entering and exiting the gym, or during low-exertion workouts. Wipe down free weights and gym equipment with disinfectant before use. Bring your own resistance bands and yoga mat. When you leave the gym, wash your hands, toss your gym clothes in the washer and wipe any equipment you may have brought with you to the gym like resistance bands or yoga mats.

In summary, you should evaluate the risks of going to your local gym, based on your age, medical condition, your gym mitigating risk efforts and the spread of the virus in your community. If you don’t feel comfortable, there are many fitness alternatives that will help you get back in shape. You have no excuse!

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