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Is It Safe to Go Back to the Gym? Here’s What Research Shows

Discussion in 'Physical and Sports Medicine' started by Mahmoud Abudeif, Aug 7, 2020.

  1. Mahmoud Abudeif

    Mahmoud Abudeif Golden Member

    Mar 5, 2019
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    Is it safe to go back to the gym? Much like dining out, the answer to that question depends on your location, risk tolerance, and the precautions taken by gym management.


    As the US struggles to confine the COVID-19 pandemic, many physicians may be longing for the stress release that comes from a good sweat session. Others might be missing the beach body that’s been eliminated by stress eating. As with the rest of the country, the reopening of gyms has This listing shows the status of fitness clubs in your state.

    What the research shows

    Just because you can hit the gym doesn’t mean that you should. Research highlights the uncertainty regarding safety. An often-cited preprint 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 out at 1 of 5 gyms, or stayed home. This might lead you to think working out has a low infection risk. But the truth is murky.

    Consider that to date, Norway has had about 9,000 confirmed COVID-19 infections and the US has had 4.8 million. Furthermore, the US is more populous, less homogenous, and is much larger than Norway, making direct comparison tenuous.

    We also have a documented example of what can go wrong, as presented in this CDC research letter. The letter explains that, through contact tracing, researchers in South Korea determined that more than 100 people contracted COVID-19 from “fitness dance classes” at a dozen “sports facilities.” Infections seemed to stem from the instructors, some of whom contracted the virus at an instructor-training workshop before passing it onto students, researchers say.

    “Characteristics that might have led to transmission from the instructors in Cheonan include large class sizes, small spaces, and intensity of the workouts,” researchers wrote. “The moist, warm atmosphere in a sports facility coupled with turbulent air flow generated by intense physical exercise can cause more dense transmission of isolated droplets.”

    Gym airflow is indeed a cause for concern. Assuming you’d probably want your gym to be air conditioned in the summer, right? Well, an Emerging Infectious Disease study from early in the pandemic showed just how effective air conditioners are at spreading COVID-19. In this study, researchers determined that 10 people who ate at the same restaurant in Guangzhou, China contracted the virus from respiratory droplets circulated by an air conditioner. A fellow restaurant patron had visited Wuhan, contracted the virus, and unwittingly spread it to the other diners.

    Assessing your risk

    If gyms are open where you live, you may have to decide for yourself as to what is an acceptable amount of risk. According to the CDC, we know that risk of COVID-19 infection is higher for those with preexisting conditions, including cancer, chronic kidney disease, COPD, serious heart conditions, sickle cell disease, type 2 diabetes, as well as those who are clinically obese or who are immunocompromised. If this sounds like you, then perhaps training at the gym isn’t in your best health interest.

    You also need to factor in what your gym is doing to mitigate risk. For example, in some states gyms are limiting capacity, mandating masks and social distancing, even erecting plastic pods in which patrons can work out. Some fitness clubs have also implemented contactless sign-in procedures, contact tracing, temperature checks upon entry, and increased hand-washing and cleaning efforts. While these measures are laudable, there’s little to be done to deter so-called silent spread of the virus by asymptomatic carriers. It’s also important to keep in mind that not all cleaning products are effective against COVID-19.

    According to the Mayo Clinic, outdoor exercise is the safer bet. They suggest options such as walking, running, hiking, boating, or golfing, adding that “fitness classes, held outside, that allow distance,” are in their low-risk category.

    The pandemic has also forced many trainers and gyms to take their businesses online. Many are now offering web-based fitness programs that you can do safely at home with whatever equipment you have available, or even just body weight. Some will even guide you through exercises over a video conferencing link. If you aren’t comfortable with returning to the gym but are craving some guided activity, this may be a good option for you.

    Looking to dip your toe into fitness during quarantine, or do it on the cheap? Do some YouTube searching for guided workouts and use your medical judgment to find a workout that matches your fitness level. Bodyweight high intensity interval training (HIIT) is a great way to get your heart rate up without equipment.

    • While a Norwegian study linking only a few cases of COVID-19 to gyms is certainly encouraging, the demographics in Norway are very different from those in the US.
    • A South Korean study shows us what can go wrong with COVID-19 in gyms.
    • Airflow is a major risk factor and exercising outdoors, socially distanced, may be safer than gyms.
    • Those with underlying COVID-19 risk factors should probably avoid the gym.
    • There are numerous home-based fitness options, including YouTube workouts and home-based personal training.

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