Quads and quarantine

Exercise in the time of coronavirus: How to work out safely in a pandemic

These 9 etiquette rules could help keep you safe at the gym.

Different cartoon people exercising at modern gym vector flat illustration. Athletic man and woman o...

Exercise, when done properly, is proven to boost health; even doing just a few minutes of exercise every day can improve brain function, reverse the effects of aging in the heart, and may even improve your memory. Exercise can also be a boon to mental health. But in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, is it really safe to hit the gym?

Gyms and health experts across the United States have been wondering the same thing — and they are taking action. Together, they offer nine good etiquette rules for working out that may help protect you if you decide to get a sweat despite COVID-19.

First: If you choose to exercise at a gym, be under no illusion. These are places where germs and bacteria of all kinds can thrive, notes LaMar Hasbrouck, a public health expert and the former senior medical officer at the United States' Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The reason why is because gyms are a perfect storm of environment and human behavior, he says.

“It’s the temperature: Germs often tend to do warm, body heat. A lot of moisture," Hasbrouck tells Inverse. "You have a lot of people using heavily used equipment. So things are being touched constantly,” he says.

Coronavirus strains can thrive on surfaces for hours. Whether this is the case for the COVID-19 specifically is unclear, but evidence suggests it may survive on some surfaces for as many as 3 days. The evidence also suggest the virus can be transmitted from frequently-touched, hard surfaces, like doorknobs or an elevator button, according to Harvard Health.

“I think it's a potential environment where, let's just say you're doing a yoga class, and a lot of those tend to not be well ventilated,” Hasbrouck says.

“That's the close contact concern that we worry about. We know that proximity and duration and ventilation, those are kind of three factors that chances out the infection being transmitted.”

So how do you workout safely? We looked at the ways fitness facilities are working to protect their users, and what you can do to protect yourself.

5 ways gyms are tackling the COVID-19 outbreak

As the outbreak continues, fitness facilities are stepping up and taking precautions to protect their members from the virus.

Here are the five key ways gyms across the US are trying to minimize potential exposure:

  • Keeping things clean: Gyms are scheduling regular and thorough cleaning of all facilities and equipment, with some, like Planet Fitness, assuring users that: “Our team members conduct regular and thorough cleaning of all equipment, surfaces, and areas of the club and gym floor using disinfectant cleaning supplies.”

  • Increasing frequency of cleaning: Some gyms, like national chain Blink Fitness and the New York Sports Club, which has some 100 locations throughout the city, are upping their cleaning regimens even further. "Out of an abundance of caution we are increasing the frequency that we clean high touch, common areas during peak times," Blink told users in a recent email advisory. Meanwhile, New York Sports Club told members in an email that their overnight cleaning crews will work an extra shift.

  • Hospital-grade cleaning: Blink Fitness told members via email it would use “hospital-grade solution regularly throughout the day" to clean equipment. SoulCycle, a national spin-cycling chain, will also be using “hospital-grade cleaning solution,” according to their email advisory to members.

  • Rescheduling classes: Emails from certain locations of fitness class chains such as Pure Barre, suggest there is extra flexibility if someone needs to reschedule a class.

  • Going online: Soulcycle is releasing an at-home bike that streams SoulCycle classes, similar to the Peloton. Obé, an online streaming fitness service, tells Inverse they offer a free month for anybody quarantined or self-quarantining. "During this uncertain time, we want people to stay strong, stay safe, and stay occupied with a caring community that always has your back," the online gym's co-founders said in a statement.

“I think those are good positive steps and I think they will help,” Hasbrouck says.

“Cleaning more often, if you're cleaning once a day, maybe going to two or three times a day, [will be good]” Hasbrouck says.

You can also help yourself by having hand wipes on you and washing your hands regularly after touching equipment. While simple, these recommendations are the most effective, he says.

9 coronavirus etiquette rules to follow at the gym

While exercise is good for you, what you choose to do matters, Hasbrouck says. He suggests avoiding classes like spin and yoga, which are often in small, poorly ventilated rooms, and feature a lot of people close together.

No matter where you go, these nine tips, aggregated from both gyms' and Hasbrouck's advice, could help you minimize your chances of exposure to coronavirus.

9. Avoid touching your face: “Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands,” national gym chain Equinox suggests in their newsletter.
8. Don't be too social: Avoid close contact with your fellow fitness aficionados. Barrys’ Bootcamp, a fitness class chain, also suggests outright avoiding kissing and hugging, and sharing water bottles.
7. Wash your hands: “Wash your hands using hot, soapy water for 20 seconds—this is the best way to control transmission in normal, healthy adults. To that end, we’re reminding all riders to commit to washing their hands: when arriving at the studio, after using the bathroom, after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing,” Soul Cycle recommends in an email.
6. Use the cleaning products provided: "Utilize the disinfectant wipes available on the club floor to wipe down machines and equipment after use,” is what Blink Fitness asks gymmers to do.
5. Use a towel: “It is suggested to grab a towel and lay it on your mat,” requests Pure Barre. “Definitely have a towel. A lot of people don't bring towels necessarily so that you have a barrier between you and that machine,” Hasbrouck says.
4. Stay home if you are sick: "For your well-being and the well-being of others, if you're sick please stay home and take care of yourself,” says Planet Fitness’ email blast.
3. Wear the right gear: Consider wearing long workout clothing, for example long sleeves instead of sports bras, because that protects your skin from hosting the virus and bringing it close to your mucus membranes (that's your face, basically), Hasbrouck says.
2. Wear gloves: Aside from minimizing contact with dirty surfaces, they could also help you learn not touch your face, he says.
1. Avoid peak times: Avoiding the crowds means there won't be a lot of people touching equipment at the same time. Going as soon as the gym opens, or right after it is cleaned, may also minimize potential exposure, Hasbrouck says.

Exercise alternatives

You do not have to go to a gym to get a sweat on, Hasbrouck says. Working out outside or in your home allows for social distancing, and you can still get you your fit fix for the day. He suggests that folks try running or cycling outside, rather than take an organized class inside a studio.

Hasbrouck shares a personal anecdote to illustrate what he means.

“My daughter has an event coming up, and it's an outdoor event, it’s a track meet,” Hasbrouck says.

“So my advice to her was that it should be fine. You're outdoors, you guys have great ventilation, you've got a cross breeze.”

It is up to you to decide whether you want to go in a gym at all, Hasbrouck says. But the benefits of exercise are undeniable.

“Working out or some form of exercise is good because it boosts your immune system," Hasbrouck says. “It is a good instinct to want to continue working out.”

Please note: Before you make any personal decisions about changing your exercise regimen, speak to your doctor.
The latest guidance on COVID-19 and how to prevent exposure can be found at the CDC's website. The CDC also provides a fact sheet for keeping commercial spaces, including gyms, safe.
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