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Gyms May Be Reopening, But Is It Actually Safe To Go?

Zoe Weiner

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Photo: Getty Images/ Supawat Punnanon / EyeEm

I miss the gym. So much so, that some nights I actually dream of being back on the Megaformer. But just because the studios in my state are open, there is no way in hell I’m going to be heading back into them—and based on recent news, that seems like the right call.

On Tuesday, 205 people were exposed to COVID-19 at a West Virginia Planet Fitness after a member of the gym tested positive for the virus. According to a press release from the Mongolia County Health Department, anyone who was present in the gym between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. should self-quarantine for 14 days. Earlier this week, an Equinox location in Beverly Hills emailed its members to let them know that someone who had spent two days working out in the gym tested positive, NBC Los Angeles reports. It’s unclear how many people were exposed, but trainers have spoken out about concerns for their safety upon returning to work. “When you go into a space, especially inside, and you see people not wearing masks and breathing heavy, it’s terrifying,” an anonymous trainer told NBC LA.

A recent headline-making study out of Norway (a country that has had only 8,000 total reported cases of COVID-19) has led many people to believe that hitting the gym is A-okay, but the reality is far less clear. The study randomly assigned 3,000 people to either workout at one of five gyms in Oslo or to stay home. After two weeks, researchers concluded that there was no major difference in positive tests between the two groups. While this is great news for Norway, researchers caution that the findings may not be broadly applicable to other countries, like the U.S. “We would say, from a science perspective, those data are not generalizable to the situation here,” confirms Jennifer Horney, PhD, the founding director of the University of Delaware’s epidemiology department, especially when the U.S. continues to confront still more record-breaking days of new COVID-19 cases.

It’s admittedly confusing to figure out what’s “safe” in the current reality given how much we still don’t understand about the virus; however, pros agree that returning to the gym isn’t the bet right now. “The gym is up there in places where you would have the highest risk for the spread of the Coronavirus,” Jason Tetro, microbiologist and author of The Germ Files told us back in March, and the sentiment still stands. “You have a lot of people who are exerting themselves, which means they’re breathing a lot and may be sputtering and coughing. And if these people are starting to get sick or develop the infection, there’s a likelihood that they may be spreading that from their lungs into the environment around them.”

Gyms that have reopened have taken precautions, like deep cleaning and requiring members to wear masks and maintain social distancing, but it may not be enough. According to the CDC, the virus is mainly spread from person-to-person, “between people who are in close contact (within about six feet) of one another, through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.” These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people nearby, or possibly be inhaled into their lungs. It may also be possible that the disease is spread when someone touches a surface with the virus on it and then touches their mouth or nose. People have been encouraged to stay home if they’re feeling sick, but since the virus can be spread through asympotmatic or presymptomatic carriers, theoretically, even someone who feels well enough to exercise can still put others at risk.

“We can put up these layers of protection so people can complete a screening questionnaire before they go to the gym and they could be screened for fever when they enter the building, and gyms can do enhanced cleaning and those sorts of things,” says Dr. Horney. “But if it were me, I’d probably choose to [do something] outside, where you can be relatively socially distanced from people.”

Many people share in this sentiment, and are hesitant about returning to their brick and mortars. According to a recent poll of 700 people conducted by Openfit, 83 percent of the platform’s members plan to continue working out at home after gyms open. The good news is that there are still plenty of ways to sweat without heading to an actual gym to do it. Socially distanced, outdoor workouts have been deemed generally safe, and some studios are taking their classes outside as a means to keep their clients safe. The recent rise in digital fitness has also created an endless number of ways to workout at home, and according to a new survey from FitGrid, 95 percent of studios will continue to offer both digital and in-studio classes once they are fully re-opened.

No time like the present to test out how close the digital experience is to replicating the real thing, eh?

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