Is it safe to go back to the gym? Here’s what research shows

By Physician Sense
Published August 6, 2020

Key Takeaways

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 been a staggered effort with mixed results. 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.

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