Dear Mark: My Gym is Open, Is It Safe to Go?
Across much of the world, movement restrictions are lifting, businesses are reopening, and gyms are coming back. While the next few weeks may paint a different picture, and cases are going up in many areas, many places now are seeing better overall trajectories. Deaths are down, which could be a lagging indicator and thus subject to a potential skyrocket. But for now, for better or worse, the gyms are opening.
Does that mean you should go?
My gym is open. Is it safe to go back?
I haven’t been able to get into the gym for several months now. But I just got an email and starting next week, they’re open for business. My question is should I go? Is it safe? What do you recommend?
I’ve really missed the workouts but I also don’t want to get sick.
Now, your regional COVID situation matters. If this is Hawaii and the case count is 1030 with just a few cases being added every day, you’re probably safe going to the gym. If you’re in New York with cases in the hundreds of thousands, the gym might pose more danger. So do your due diligence there. That’s going to vary for everyone.
Let’s say you decide you want to go back. All else being equal, how can you determine if it’s safe to do so? What should you expect from your gym proprietor? What steps can you take to reduce your chances of getting the virus at the gym?
I looked at the actual research into the interactions between gym safety and the coronavirus. I also asked my friend, Thom Downing, who owns the Focused Individualized Trainers facility in Los Altos, CA, for some tips. He’s been closed down for over three months now, and he’s figured out how to keep his coaches paid and his clients fit and healthy by expanding their offerings to include at-home sessions, virtual training, online tutorials, Zoom boot-camps, and even virtual PE classes for kids. He loaned out most of the gym’s equipment to local clients so they can continue their work at home. Plus, he’s been making modifications to the facility so that when he does open back up, his gym will be as safe as possible.
So, what are some things to consider?
I’m offering you a few things to think about. These measures will by no means keep you 100% virus-free. These are simply things to think about as you assess what risk level you are comfortable with.
Wait a Month to See How Things Shake Out
A month is a good period of time to see a trend emerge. If people return and transmission starts happening, you’ll know a month in. Any place of business will (or should) disclose positive COVID19 transmission.
Use Outdoor Equipment
There are many reasons to train outside. Sunlight is a powerful deactivator of the virus and increases your vitamin D production. Having an entire open atmosphere surrounding you instead of a cloistered indoor space provides plenty of room for the exhaled air to disperse and dilute.
This isn’t possible everywhere. Your average big box facility probably won’t let you take weights outside, but the smaller, more mom-and-pop gyms likely will. Ask nicely.
Consider Switching to a Personal Training-style Gym
Smaller, more personal gyms will be your best bet. The user count will be lower. You’ll be familiar with more of the people there. You can avoid people if you need to. People will be doing their own thing, usually with a trainer, and the trainers will all be keeping their clients at a safe distance from other clients because it’s mandated (and correct). It has structure, in other words, and that’s what you need right now.
A big box gym is impersonal, unwieldy. There’s so much going on and so many people you can’t possibly account for. This pushes up the risk of transmission.
Ensure There’s Good Ventilation
A study from 2018 found that the risk of influenza transmission at the gym increased with higher occupancy and higher CO2 levels.1 You could ask your gym to monitor CO2 levels, as those are great barometers for ventilation. Higher CO2 means less ventilation and more shared air. Lower CO2 means higher ventilation, less shared air, and lower risk. Inhaled air is about 0.003% CO2; exhaled air is 4-6% CO2.
That said, “lower risk” doesn’t mean no risk. The same study found that influenza transmission risk remained fairly elevated even with low occupancy and lower CO2 levels. Gyms are just a great vector for a virus like influenza. All that fluid, all that exhalation, all that intensity, all that proximity. COVID19 isn’t influenza, but the two viruses spread through similar mediums: droplets expelled from the nose and mouth.
Fans Over Air Conditioners
Gyms love to pump up the air conditioning. This is helpful when it’s hot out. Safer, even. No one should overheat when training. But when the A.C. is on, the windows are usually closed, and these days, you want good air flow. You don’t want to breathe in the same air everyone else just exhaled.
Favor gyms that have huge industrial fans, open doors and windows, and tons of circulation.
The official recommendation is to wear a cloth face covering when you’re around people,2 and masks will likely be required for indoor gyms. At first glance, that seems like it would be uncomfortable, particularly if you’re wearing a legitimate N95 mask. Those things are hard to breathe in.
But researchers have actually looked at this.3 They placed pregnant healthcare workers into N95 masks and had them exercise. They exhaled less oxygen and more carbon dioxide, but that was the extent of the changes. The fetal heartbeats were normal. Blood oxygen saturation didn’t change. Nor did rate of perceived exertion. Overall, it “impose[d] an additional workload on the metabolic system,” which could be good or bad depending on your stress tolerance and goals.
In athletes, wearing a similar mask during weight lifting didn’t affect performance, but it did affect focus, alertness, and peak velocity. A few people got dizzy. All in all, they were okay though.4
Then again, another study found that lifters wearing a mask completed fewer repetitions.5
Slow-flow N95s aren’t required, though. The recommendations only specify that face coverings should be cloth, and mask requirements have been around long enough that there are now infinite styles and materials to choose from. There are lots of masks that are comfortable enough for workouts, and made of breathable material that won’t restrict airflow much.
Oxygenation probably won’t be a problem, but just in case, keep things brief. Don’t go too hard for too long. Don’t be a hero. No PRs.
Use the Sauna and Steam Room
The virus hates heat and humidity and initially infects the throat and nasal passage before eventually replicating enough to make it to the lungs. If that’s true, and you can breathe in enough 135 degree sauna air through both nose and mouth, you may be able to reduce the activity of the virus.
That’s very speculative, however, and there are many reasons to think it’s probably not enough.
- By the time the air gets into your throat and nose, it’s already cooled off.
- The heat exposure isn’t consistent. Breathing in means a second or two of sufficient heat exposure (assuming the air remains hot enough). Then you’re breathing cooler air out. Then you breathe in again. You’re not holding the temperature at a consistent 135 degrees for the 15 minutes it takes to really reduce activity.
- The original SARS coronavirus from the 2000s is sensitive to 135 degrees. We don’t know for sure if this latest one has the same sensitivity.
At the most, the sauna might help. At the least, it won’t hurt. And sauna is good for other things, anyway.
Dose With Zinc Lozenges After You Train
There’s a certain kind of zinc acetate lozenge that has a strong local effect on zinc concentrations in the throat and nasal tissues. You start feeling a cold come on, you let one of those zinc acetate lozenges dissolve in your mouth, and it actually reduces the duration of the cold. No chewing. It takes around half an hour to fully dissolve, but it actually helps.
These might help against the coronavirus, which also gains entry via the throat and nasal passage and is vulnerable to zinc.
Consider a Povidone-iodine Gargle Before and After the Gym
Recent in vitro evidence shows that a 0.5% solution of povidone-iodine (an antiseptic often used in veterinary care) deactivates the coronavirus in 15 seconds.6 This is coronavirus on a surface, not in your body, but the virus initially spends time on the surface of your nasal membranes and throat before gaining entry and proliferating. There could be a window of opportunity between when the virus is transmitted to you and when you “have” it—and the povidone-iodine wash might kill some or all of the virus before it gets into you.
Simply get a 10% solution online or at a drug or pet store and dilute it to 0.5%.
If it doesn’t help, you’re not in any danger. 0.5% povidone-iodine is safe for gargling and nasal swabbing. Just don’t swallow it.
Keep Your Distance
Six feet is the prescribed distance. If you’re indoors and training, I’d bump that up even higher to 12-15 feet. You’re breathing hard. The other people are breathing hard. Everyone’s sweating, grunting, spittle flying.
Wipe Down Equipment Before and After You Use It
I don’t mean the old “wipe it with a sweaty towel.” I mean bring a cleaning agent that’s been shown to kill, or use disinfectant wipes (either bleach or ethanol-based). Very likely the gym will provide these; if not, provide your own.
Go During Off Hours
The more people in the gym, the greater the risk of transmission. Every gym has peak hours. Avoid those.
Find a Gym That’s Doing Everything Right
I’ll tell you what Thom is doing because it’s a very strong model.
No cardio equipment—too hard to clean.
Start every session on the hour. This makes it easier to do a deep clean every hour and keep people organized and safely distancing.
Disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer stations all over. Hospital grade.
UV-C (shown to kill coronavirus) lighting in the air ducts.
Ionizers installed that attach water molecules to particles in the air, making them big enough for filters to catch.
Upgraded, more capable filters changed more frequently (once a month versus twice a year).
Open doors, big fans.
Do as much as possible outside in the sun.
Masks required in common areas.
Constant updates and communication with clients. Taking no chances.
Considering povidone-iodine washes available and zinc lozenges for sale, depending on logistics and whether more research emerges. This one’s pending.
Anyway, that’s what I’d recommend looking into. Regardless of how worried you are or not about the virus, these tips will help ensure you’re safe without negatively impacting your training experience.
What do you think about returning to the gym? What precautions will you take? What modifications, if any, will you make to your former routine and approach?
Let me know down below!
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