July 7, 2020

As gyms reopen across the United States, many Americans (whether workout enthusiasts or begrudging exercisers) are wondering whether it's safe to return to the workout spots amid the country's resurging coronavirus epidemic.

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NPR and the Washington Post separately spoke to public health experts to find out.

What to consider before heading back to the gym

Your personal risks

Public health experts told NPR and the Post that Americans should consider their personal risks before going back to the gym, as well as any safety precautions the gym might have in place.

Saadia Griffith-Howard, an infectious disease specialist with Kaiser Permanente, told NPR that people should consider their risk personal of contracting the novel coronavirus and developing a severe case of Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, before going back to the gym.

"You have to make your own assessment of how risky it is based on knowing your medical situation and whether you are someone who's at high risk for an infection," Griffith-Howard said.

According to NPR, gymgoers with underlying health conditions such as heart disease, as well as people who are 65 and older, may want to consider staying home.

Lou Ann Bruno-Murtha, division chief of infectious diseases at Cambridge Health Alliance, told NPR that people living in coronavirus hot spots, or place experiencing high rates of new infections, also should consider skipping the gym.

Gym's safety precautions

According to NPR, the guidelines gyms must follow for reopening vary between states, but the majority of states suggest that gyms limit capacity, enforce physical distancing, and disinfect all equipment before and after use, NPR reports.

Experts told NPR that, before heading back to the gym, Americans should consider whether their gym has implemented any measures intended to protect exercisers against the new coronavirus and whether those measures are likely to be effective.

For instance, Griffith-Howard told NPR that Americans should assess whether staff at gyms are screening gym goers' temperatures, regularly cleaning equipment, and wearing face mask or coverings, as well as whether a gym requires patrons to wear face masks or coverings.

Gymgoers also should consider whether they can maintain a distance of at least six feet between themselves and others while inside the venue, experts said.

Doug Reed, an immunologist and aerobiologist at the University of Pittsburgh, explained, "When you are exercising and exerting yourself, you're going to be breathing out and breathing in more than you normally would … And so the potential for being infected or spreading the infection would be that much higher."

What to do if you are heading to the gym

If you decide to head back to the gym, experts say you should abide by three key practices:

1. Keep your distance from others

Bruno-Murtha told NPR that people should stay at least six feet away from each other when exercising, and they should "double that to 12 feet" if breathing heavily.

Griffith-Howard added that people should avoid attending large group exercise classes. "You may be breathing harder, people may be coughing, it may be hard to keep on masks," Griffith-Howard said. "I would have some concerns about that."

2. Wear a face mask or covering

Experts told NPR that people also should wear face masks or coverings as often as possible in the gym, including in locker rooms and while performing light exercises.

"Physical exercise is important for your physical and mental health but you still have to be smart," Bruno-Murtha said. "Wearing a mask is part of being smart, along with physical distancing, disinfecting equipment, and vigilant hand washing."

3. Prioritize air flow

Nikita Desai, a pulmonologist with the Cleveland Clinic, told NPR that people should avoid gyms with little air ventilation, as more space and more ventilation can help to dilute the concentration of the new coronavirus in the air, NPR reports.

"Your best bet is going to be a gym that is larger, able to have windows open, or have multiple floors or levels to allow for physical distancing," Desai said.

Some experts recommend skipping the gym entirely

Still, some health experts say Americans should skip the gym entirely until the country's coronavirus epidemic is under control.

During a recent interview with the Washington Post, six public health specialists said they wouldn't go back to the gym anytime soon.

Barry Bloom, a Jacobson research professor and former dean of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said he doesn't "believe gyms are the safest place to be until the numbers [of newly reported coronavirus cases in America] go down."

And Paul Volberding, a professor of medicine and emeritus professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California-San Francisco, said he "wouldn't go eagerly" to the gym, noting that gym staff "can't disinfect everything all of the time."

Overall, the experts agreed that working out outdoors is the safest bet amid the epidemic.

Similarly, public health experts told NPR that people who are high risk of developing a severe case of Covid-19 or who may still be wary of working out at a gym should instead work out close to home.

Desai said exercising outdoors is particularly low risk, because people have more ability to control how close they get to others when outside than they do at an indoor gym.

In addition, Joshua Santarpia, a microbiologist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, said a person's risk of contracting the new coronavirus is lower outside than inside, due to airflow and sunlight and humidity, which could subdue the virus.

"I would be less worried about the jogger who is running past you for a split second and more worried about the person who's working out next to you without a mask for half an hour," Desai said (Neighmond, "Shots," NPR, 7/5; Cimons, Washington Post, 7/3).

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