When stay-at-home orders were put in place at the beginning of the pandemic, gyms and fitness studios across the country shut their doors, forcing lots of people to re-imagine their approach to exercise. Some turned to online workouts, others began hiking or biking, and many opted out of exercise altogether.
In fact, according to a September 2020 study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, Americans exercise 32 percent less now than they did before the pandemic.
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But before long, fitness instructors started thinking outside of the gym. Now, many classes take place outside, which research is showing to be far less risky than being around others in an enclosed space.
Indoor vs. Outdoor Workout Classes
"When you're outside, the virus becomes more dilute because of air circulation," says MarkAlain Déry, MD, medical director of infectious disease for Access Health Louisiana. If you're near someone who's COVID-positive, the viral particles they emit won't stay in your airspace as long as they would if you were indoors because they're carried away by the fresh air.
While heading outdoors doesn't guarantee that you'll stay COVID-free (you're taking a risk anytime you gather in a group), working out is a boon for your health in several ways, including helping protect you from infections like the coronavirus.
"Exercise stimulates immunity," Dr. Déry says. And if you do contract the disease, people who are in shape fare better than those who are not.
"Obesity is one of the top risk factors for severe COVID and death, so taking care of your body and staying at a healthy weight is an important preventative measure," says Jennifer Veltman, MD, chief of infectious diseases at Loma Linda University Health. "Exercise also improves your mood and is a great way to diffuse anxiety during what a very stressful time."
In that way, group classes offer a unique benefit: a sense of community when so many of us are isolated.
"This pandemic has reiterated that fitness is more than just exercise in a brick and mortar," says Lisa Harrington, co-owner of FIT House, a boutique fitness studio in Davis, California, that offers several al fresco exercise options. "It's about community and connectivity, which is desperately needed right now."
"The feedback we've gotten from the community is that people are craving the in-person experience that drives motivation, and the connection people love from fitness classes that you can't achieve as well online," says Mari Neubauer, co-owner of The Bar Method Phinney Ridge in Seattle, which offers daily outdoor barre classes.
Guidelines to Stay Safe During Outdoor Workout Classes
If fitness classes are your happy place and you're tempted to get moving with a group outside, experts say there are precautionary measures you can take to reduce your risk. The safest sweat sessions will have the following COVID protocols in place:
1. Mandatory: Face Masks
Experts agree that masks are essential during outdoor workout classes. At Neubauer's studio, class participants must wear masks before, during and after the workout. She offers disposable masks in case someone forgets to bring theirs.
"Masking is without question the number one modality for preventing transmission," Dr. Déry says. "Evidence suggests it also protects you from the virus. Not only are masked people less likely to become infected, but if they do get sick, their symptoms are significantly less severe because they got a very low dose of the virus."
Check in with the trainer beforehand to ensure that he or she will enforce mask requirements — as well as wear a mask themselves. "Instructors need to be serious about maintaining masking rules throughout the class," Dr. Déry says.
For instance, if a participant's mask slips under their nose, the teacher should tell them to pull it up. "And if someone needs to remove their mask for a water break, they should step aside and remain socially distant from others," Dr. Veltman says.
Since wet masks don't filter out microbes as effectively as dry masks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), keep an extra mask or two on hand in case yours gets sweaty. "It is also easier to breathe through dry fabric," Dr. Veltman says.
And don't forget to wash your mask when you get home!
Exercisers should stay a minimum of 6 to 12 feet apart from one another. "The farther the better," Dr. Veltman says. "When you are breathing heavily during vigorous exercise, you are expelling a greater amount of aerosolized particles and they project farther."
In addition, make sure that you aren't facing anyone else. The last thing you want is to be in the pathway of another person's exhalations. Instructors should keep their distance, too.
"We do not give hands-on adjustments at this time," Neubauer says. "We know each client's name and give people technique and form tips over the mic."
You may also want to consider sticking to low-intensity group classes and doing vigorous workouts on your own.
According to an August 2020 article from the CDC, pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic fitness trainers infected with COVID widely transmitted the virus to others during an intense indoor aerobics class. Yet there was no transmission when the same trainers taught low-key yoga or Pilates, due to the lack of heavy breathing. So maybe take a group Hatha class, then head out for a solo jog.
3. Recommended: Pre-Screening Procedures
According to Dr. Veltman, class participants should be asked if they've experienced COVID symptoms (diarrhea, muscle aches, sore throat, loss of taste or smell, cough, shortness of breath), if they're COVID-positive or awaiting a test result or if they've had recent contact with someone who's tested positive within the past two weeks.
"Ideally, the instructor will do a no-contact temp check as another layer of protection," Dr. Veltman says. Teachers at Neubauer's studio take the temperature of each client before allowing them to enter the class area. "We also keep class lists for contact tracing," she says.
But take pre-screening checks with a grain of salt. "The only way to really know if a person is infected is testing," Dr. Déry says. The CDC estimates that 40 percent of COVID-positive people are asymptomatic, meaning they never exhibit symptoms during their illness. And 50 percent of COVID cases are spread by people who are pre-symptomatic — they're infected, but haven't yet shown signs of sickness.
"Still, symptom checks are better than nothing," Dr. Déry says.
4. Recommended: Low Confirmed Case Rate in the Community
The more widespread COVID is in your area, the riskier it is to attend any type of get-together — including an outdoor aerobics class.
"If you live somewhere with a low incidence of cases, then you know the rate of transmission is low," Dr. Déry says. "The R0, or daily infection rate, in your county should be 0.9 percent or below; anything over 1 percent indicates exponential growth."
5. Recommended: BYO Equipment
A September 2020 study in The Lancet suggests that the risk of COVID transmission via surfaces is very low, but it's still worth using your own equipment if possible or bringing along disinfectant wipes.
"At our studio, people bring their own towel and yoga mat, and we provide specific equipment like balls and barres," Neubauer says. "We build in 30 minutes between classes to diligently sanitize equipment and touchpoints."
To eliminate shared paper and pens, Neubauer's studio has also implemented a touchless check-in procedure, where the instructor digitally signs clients into class.
Whether or not you use the gym's equipment, be sure to wash your hands for a minimum of 20 seconds when you get home. You post-workout shower will help, too.
6. Recommended: Small Class Size
The larger the group, the greater your risk of exposure. Dr. Veltman suggests sticking with classes that have a maximum of 10 participants. This interactive map created by researchers at Georgia Tech reveals what the chances are that someone at an event you attend is COVID-positive, based on the number of people and location.
7. Optional: A PA System
While it's certainly not a dealbreaker if a class doesn't have a PA system, it's one more way to lessen the risk of spread. That's because loud talking can emit thousands of viral droplets per second, according to a June 2020 study in PNAS.
"This can lead to a greater likelihood of transmission, so look for an instructor who wears a mask and uses a PA system, rather than shouting over music," Dr. Déry says. In May 2020, the CDC reported that an indoor choir practice (without masks or social distancing) resulted in a whopping 87-percent COVID transmission rate, thanks in part to loud vocalization.
What if the teacher doesn't have a PA system, but is masking up? "A mask will significantly reduce transmission, but yelling is still not ideal," Dr. Déry says. (Another reason to favor a small, quite yoga class over a large, loud, music-driven HIIT class.)
So Is It Safe to Do an Outdoor Workout Class?
We know this is a lot to think about, and ultimately, the decision is up to you and your risk comfort level. But whatever you choose, finding a safe way to stay active is crucial, whether you're hopping on your indoor bike in the comfort of your own home, going for a run or attending Zumba in the park with friends.
- International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health: "Changes in Physical Activity and Sedentary Behavior in Response to COVID-19 and Their Associations with Mental Health in 3052 US Adults"
- Evidation Health: "COVID-19 Pulse: Delivering regular insights on the pandemic from a 150,000+ person connected cohort"
- Journal of Infectious Diseases: "Simulated Sunlight Rapidly Inactivates SARS-CoV-2 on Surfaces"
- CDC: "Cluster of Coronavirus Disease Associated with Fitness Dance Classes, South Korea"
- Georgia Tech: "COVID-19 Event Risk Assessment Planning Tool"
- CDC: "COVID-19 Pandemic Planning Scenarios"
- CDC: "Effectiveness of Cloth Masks for Protection Against Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2"
- The Lancet: "Low risk of SARS-CoV-2 transmission by fomites in real-life conditions"
- PNAS: "The airborne lifetime of small speech droplets and their potential importance in SARS-CoV-2 transmission"
- CDC: "High SARS-CoV-2 Attack Rate Following Exposure at a Choir Practice — Skagit County, Washington, March 2020"