As of May 20, all 50 states have started to loosen shutdown restrictions to some degree. For a lot of cities, the first wave of re-opening includes gyms, CrossFit boxes, climbing centers, and the like.
Now, it’s easy to say your best strategy to stay safe is continuing to sweat outside or in your living room. But the reality is most of us really, really miss getting our ass handed to us by heavy barbells and motivating coaches.
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So is it safe to go back to gyms? To be brutally honest, no one really knows. “We’re doing these little experiments one gym at a time to see if we can get away with exercising and promoting health and wellness without making people sick,” says David Aronoff, M.D., director of the division of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville.
And we don’t yet know whether that’s possible.
But we do know the vast majority of businesses, especially gyms and studios, are taking measures to try and minimize infection risk. Some are taking the temperatures of their staff and members before they can come into the building. Most are limiting class sizes or member entry to ensure social distancing. Many are shortening their classes to allow time for equipment disinfection in between.
“If you went into gyms right now that were functioning the same as November 2019, that’d be a problem,” Aronoff says. “But everybody involved is most likely trying to mitigate risks.”
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However, we’re still living with the realities of COVID-19: You can’t look at someone and know they’re not infected just because they feel fine or don’t have a temperature. Some people carry the virus and never get symptoms. And even people who do were likely shedding the virus for days before they were symptomatic, Aronoff adds. What’s more, we know the more people you’ve been interacting with, the higher the chances a stealthy virus like COVID-19 is going to spread.
That being said, we totally get why you’re daydreaming of slinging real weights in a room full of your sweaty, grunting friends.
“There’s an understandable desire for people to be engaging with things that make them feel well and fit—and that reduces anxiety and (the side effects of) social isolation,” Aronoff adds. Plus, we all want to keep our locally owned boxes and boutique fitness centers from going under permanently.
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First, consider whether you can get the same relief and benefit from home or outdoor workouts, Aronoff says. Then, if you feel like the risk is worth the reward of heading to your favorite fitness center, make sure you ask your gym these seven questions before you walk through the doors.
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1. How are you spacing out people and equipment?
With a virus that spreads via droplets in the air, with an unknown spray radius, and in an environment where we’re all breathing heavily, your best defense is space, Aronoff says. Treadmills shouldn’t be packed together; no one should be on a machine directly next to you; and classmates, as well as instructors, need to be at least 6 feet away from you at all times.
2. Are you limiting how many people can be in the gym at once?
A safe number of people is completely dependent on the physical size of your fitness center. But fewer people in the building at once means a lower chance of infection—it’s as simple as that.
3. Are your employees wearing masks?
Wearing a mask encourages others to don one, and to remain cautious and vigilant—which can be powerful coming from the person greeting you at the facility. And considering employees are at the highest risk here of being unknown carriers (they interact with the most people in a day), they should be wearing a mask to protect your health.
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4. Do you have disposable masks if I want one?
It can be challenging to wear a mask while exercising, and you don’t necessarily have to if distancing and disinfection are both on point. But you should wear one in and out of the facility, when you’re going to be passing people in the doorway and at the front desk, Aronoff says. And management should provide clean, ideally disposable masks for guests or employees in case they want one.
5. What’s the ventilation like?
In addition to having space between people, it’s important the facility has a system to move potentially infected air out and fresh air in. Fans potentially just recirculate infected air droplets. The facility needs to have either a great ventilation system or enough windows and doors for a cross breeze to move air through the room.
6. How often are you disinfecting the equipment, and do you have disinfectant available for members to use?
Employees should be wiping down all equipment regularly—certainly in between every class. Additionally, there should be ample ways to make sure common-use equipment can easily be sanitized or disinfected by members, Aronoff says. Management should have disinfectant spray and paper towels, or pre-soaked wipes available in multiple locations around the gym for you to use. Wipe equipment down before you use it (in case the last person was careless) and again after you’re done. Also, there should be plenty of hand sanitizer all around so you don’t wipe sweat out of your eyes with germy skin.
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7. What are you doing to encourage healthy choices?
“Often people will go to the gym to exercise or relax (in a gym’s spa or sauna) when they’re starting to come down with something or feel bad,” Aronoff points out. And it’s easy to write off a slight throat tickle while you’re walking into your HIIT class. “Gyms should have really good signage that promotes these principles and kindly reminds people if they’re having any symptoms of COVID-19, to please respect the health of others by staying home,” he adds.
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