Your Gym May Be Reopening — but Is It Actually Safe to Go Back?

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If you're heading back to the gym, make sure to follow social distancing protocols and wear a mask whenever possible.
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Devout gym-goers can agree that no amount of resistance bands, DIY dumbbells or weight bench alternatives compare to the real thing. Maybe it's the crash of a barbell or the whoosh of an air bike, but exercising in the living room can't replace the bliss of training in a facility that feels like a home away from home.

Which might make it extra enticing that gyms across the country are starting to reopening after months-long closures to help limit the spread of COVID-19. But you don't want to fall totally back into your usual gym routine too soon.

Get tips on how to stay healthy, safe and sane during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Is It Safe to Go to the Gym?

It's not yet clear just how safe it really is to head back to your favorite studio or gym. Whether or not you should return to your gym workouts depends on multiple factors, including your age and your overall health, Tania Elliott, MD, co-chair of NYU Langone Health's Virtual Health Clinical Task Force, tells LIVESTRONG.com.

Adults 65 or older may be at higher risk of contracting COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Similarly, people with underlying health conditions, such as asthma, diabetes or heart disease, or people undergoing cancer treatment or treatment with other immune-weakening medication, can also be at higher risk of severe complications.

If you fall in either of these categories, you may not want to be the first one heading back to the gym as soon as it opens, Dr. Elliott says.

Keep in mind the gym isn't going to be exactly as you remember it. To reopen, many gyms are instituting new safety protocols. Some, like 24 Hour Fitness and Planet Fitness, are introducing a touchless check-in process to minimize contact between workers and gym-goers.

Others, like Life Time, plan to implement mandatory temperature screenings for staff and will use hospital-grade disinfectant in their facilities, according to Jeff Zwiefel, chief operating officer of Life Time.

States are also requiring that gyms reopen at reduced capacity, limiting the number of members coming in. Some chains, like 24 Hour Fitness, are allowing reservation-only exercise in order to limit crowding. Others are operating only every other hour in order to clean and sanitize fitness areas. Familiarize yourself with any new protocols by either calling your facility or checking their website and schedule your visit accordingly.

Although pre-pandemic gym trends are likely to have changed — there may no longer be as big of a pre-work rush hour in the locker room with many people working from home, for example — you can still make an effort to schedule your workout at a time when fewer people are there to help keep your risk of exposure even lower.

Dr. Elliott recommends hitting the gym early in the morning, if you're going to go at all, so you can do your workout alongside an even smaller number of people and use the equipment before others have touched it after overnight cleaning,

Deciding whether it's safe to return to the gym is tricky, as many of the factors above are out of your control. Prevention practices upheld by the gym and other patrons affect your health, and as of now, there's no guarantee your gym will be 100 percent safe. But if you're set on going back as soon as the doors open, there is a right way to navigate the new fitness normal.

Warning

Individuals with underlying, chronic health conditions and adults over the age of 65 may be at a higher risk of serious cases of COVID-19. If you fall in either of these categories, it's best to continue with at-home workouts.

Navigating the Gym Safely

The gym is probably one of the germiest places you (used to) visit. After all, the entire experience is based on touching lots of different communal equipment.

"Almost by definition, an exercise gym is swarming with objects and surfaces [that may] have been contaminated by other humans," says Stephen Berger, MD, board certified in infectious diseases and clinical microbiology. "Repeated contact with workout machines, weights, etc., can transfer an invisible layer of bacteria, viruses and even parasites to our own skin and clothing."

If you're not set on staying home, there are some practices you should follow to stay as safe as possible. Even at the gym, the CDC recommends wearing a mask and maintaining a distance of at least 6 feet between you and others at all times. And at this point, it should go without saying: Wash your hands properly, both before and after exercise, and stay home if you are sick.

Using Machines and Free Weights

You're going to come in contact with weights or machines while exercising — that's the point of going back to the gym, after all. Chances are, other gym-goers have touched and will touch that same equipment. To protect both yourself and others, wipe down the equipment you touch before and after you use it, Dr. Elliott says.

To throughly clean equipment to ward off any kind of disease or bacteria, you'll want to use a solution that's both a cleaner (which removes grime) and a disinfectant (which kills germs), according to the CDC.

Verify with gym staff that your facility has easily accessible EPA-approved cleaning solutions that can help minimize COVID-19 spread, like Clorox bleach or Fantastik All-Purpose Cleaner. Wipe down machines thoroughly, focusing especially on areas that come in frequent contact with bare skin, like seats, handles and buttons.

If you're set on going back to the gym as soon as the doors open, there is a right way to navigate the new fitness normal.

As you get into your workout, it may feel natural to fall back into your usual flow. But do your absolute best to stay alert and cautious.

Stay at least 6 feet away from other patrons at all times — even if you're just grabbing a dumbbell quickly. If cardio's on the schedule, choose a treadmill or elliptical that's as isolated as possible. In the free weight section, establish a small area of personal space or move your bench 6 feet away from others.

If your favorite machine is occupied, avoid alternating sets with another person. As mentioned above, you'll want to sanitize equipment before and after you use it, and swapping sets makes it harder to follow this protocol.

Training in Studio Areas

Fans of fitness classes will be disappointed to learn that it's safest to avoid group sessions for the time being, according to Dr. Elliott. Group sessions make it difficult to follow distancing regulations. Plus, the high intensity can make wearing a mask more burdensome.

About 112 COVID-19 cases were associated with group dance classes in South Korea, according to a May 2020 study in Emerging Infectious Diseases. High-intensity exercise classes in small, confined spaces create the optimal environment for disease spread, the researchers found. The warm temperature of a studio, paired with large class sizes and some inevitable sweat and moisture in the air makes transmission more difficult to avoid.

"Small, enclosed and poorly ventilated areas of the gym should be avoided — even if no other individuals are present," Dr. Berger says. "There is evidence that particles expelled by one person in such areas continue to 'linger' in the air for several minutes after they have left."

Studio classes may also involve mats, bands, boxing gloves or other communal equipment. If possible, avoid these tools completely, Dr. Berger says. If necessary, bring your own mat to the gym, Dr. Elliott adds.

Using the Pool

Especially in warmer months, outdoor community pools or lap pools at your gym may start opening back up, too.

Although there's no firm evidence yet that COVID-19 can be spread through water, you'll still want to maintain a 6-foot distance from other people at the pool at all times, per the CDC. To comply with this guidance, some swim lanes will likely be closed off and chairs will be spaced out across pool decks.

The CDC recommends wearing a face mask the entire time you're at the pool, except when you're actually swimming. Take your mask off right before you get into the pool and put it back on as soon as you're done, per the CDC.

Both community and gym pools should have a cleaning system in place where disinfected equipment and chairs are labeled and held separate from used items. Life Time, for instance, guarantees hourly sanitization of high-touch areas in the pool, like pool ladders, railings and push bars, according to Alicia Kockler, vice president of aquatics at Life Time.

Using the Locker Room

No matter how much you might miss your gym's sauna, this isn't the time to rekindle that relationship. As a whole, avoid the locker room and bathrooms as much as possible, Dr. Elliott says. Usually, these are small and humid spaces that make it difficult to maintain a safe distance from other people.

Although it may seem counterintuitive, avoid showering at the gym and take one as soon as you're back home instead, Dr. Elliott says. If you are planning to clean up at the gym, know that some facilities have temporarily removed hair dryers, cosmetic products and other locker room amenities to minimize exposure to shared surfaces.

And it's probably a good idea to wash your gym clothes as soon as possible. The CDC suggests avoiding shaking out your sweaty gear to minimize the chance of dispersing the virus into the air.

How Long to Wait Before Going Back

After a few months of sheltering in place, it's not surprising you're feeling antsy to return to your fitness routine. But to play it safe, Dr. Elliott recommends waiting until researchers become more familiar with the locations of and causes of coronavirus hot spots. Although it may be frustrating not to know the exact time it will be safe to return to the gym, staying patient will help keep you safe and slow the spread.

So play it safe and stick to exercising at home for now, Dr. Elliott says. Just because the gym has opened back up doesn't mean you have to go back immediately. Explore some virtual classes your local gym or studio may be offering and limit your trips to any actual fitness facilities as much as possible.

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