New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced earlier this week that gyms in the Empire State are finally allowed to re-open starting on August 24. And after facilities closed way back in March due to COVID-19, gym rats and fitness instructors may both be itching to get back to the grind. But, the question has to be asked — is it even safe to go to the gym in the midst of a worldwide pandemic?
Cuomo’s announcement was accompanied by a few rules aiming to curb the spread of COVID-19. Gyms in New York will be limited to just 33% of their capacity; they'll have a sign-in sheet to assist any contact tracing needs; and there must be proper air filters to help prevent the transmission of viral particles. And, of course, social distancing rules and mask-wearing will be enforced.
"They're good precautions," Anthony Harris, MD, medical director and leader of the COVID-19 clinical response team at WorkCare tells Refinery29. He says the HVAC system for air filtration is a key part of indoor workout safety. "If they can specifically turn the air over six times an hour, that's been shown to be beneficial in terms of that particular threshold of removing airborne pathogens," he explains. Six times might seem like a random number, but Linsey Marr, a Virginia Tech engineer who studies the airborne spread of viruses, told Vox that the number comes from a study regarding the prevention of tuberculosis via the air.
Air purification isn't everything — in addition to that, you'll need to constantly be practicing rigorous hygiene while you're at the gym. "Bringing your own hand sanitizer is the best option," Dr. Harris says. You'll also want to stay away from using gloves during your workout as well. Why? "The utilization of gloves has led to individuals not taking care to sanitize more frequently and the gloves become a vector for transmission," he explains. Yikes!
Besides hand hygiene, it'll be super important to wipe down any equipment you use before and after your workout. Each gym might each have their own cleaning strategies, but your best bet is to make it your personal responsibility to wipe down the shared equipment both before and after you use it. Although this is a pretty regular thing in the world of gym etiquette, being overly cautious here can't hurt.
And, of course — just like you have to wear in any indoor area — masks are required. The absolute best mask is specifically a cloth mask that has multiple layers. Three layers is ideal, and two layers is the minimum. The masks you'll want to leave at home before your gym sesh are any masks with ventilation or a valve, Dr. Harris says. "These valves that have no material between the mask and the external environment are not good. Those do not protect individuals from transmitting droplets to others around them," he explains.
The other mask you'll want to avoid entirely are neck gaiters. "Studies have shown that because of the material porosity and not being sufficiently layered, wearing neck gaiters can actually be worse than wearing no mask at all because it increases the small droplets that become aerosolized more readily vs if you're not wearing a mask at all," Dr. Harris explains.
But, even if you've got the most technologically advanced mask in the world, that doesn't mean you're still entirely safe. "Just because you're wearing a mask doesn't make it safe if you're in an enclosed space for a prolonged period of time," Dr. Harris explains. "[Being indoors] can still increase risk of transmission, although it's dramatically decreased from if no one was wearing a mask at all."
Cutting down on your indoor workout time could be a helpful solution to this. If you're used to your workouts being two hours, try to cut them down to one hour — or better yet, Dr. Harris says, 30 minutes. "The time factor is there," he says. "We know that COVID exposure is what we call gradient exposure, so the longer you have the exposure the more likely you are to suffer from a transmission. If you can, minimize your workout."
Social distancing is still an important factor to remember in the gym, too — which means, say goodbye to your spotter. "Staying away from those types of exercises where you're going to need somebody to spot you is key," Dr. Harris says. "Those scenarios make it difficult to social distance."
Okay, so, no more spotters — what else should we steer clear of? Dr. Harris says activities that get our heart rate up and increase the amount of breathing we do, like hardcore cardio workouts. But if they're a must, be extra mindful in those scenarios about proximity. "You need to be adequately distanced from others — in some cases, having more than six feet of distance is appropriate during those high-output activities," he says. So before you hop on that treadmill to complete miles and miles of sprints, think again — are you far enough from others where your huffing and puffing won't be a danger? Be sure to take note.
And, if it isn't obvious, don't head to the gym — or any indoor or crowded area — if you're experiencing any coronavirus symptoms at all. Just don't.
Mask wearing. Constant hand-washing. Strict social distancing. If these precautions are overwhelming you, you may just want to skip the gym entirely. The only way to 100% prevent getting or transmitting coronavirus is to stay home, and to stay away from other people (especially in indoor areas). "Obviously, there's a balance. Exercise and working out is healthy, we want people to maintain healthy lifestyles, but we also want them to be safe," Dr. Harris says. "If you have an alternative means of exercise, that's preferable. But if you're someone who doesn't have any options, then these precautions need to be in place. Hands down."
So there you have it. Use this information as you wish — all I know is that I'll be working out at home, in my basement, and away from people, for the indefinite future.