If you’re contemplating going back to the gym, follow this expert advice.

By Wendy Rose Gould
October 16, 2020
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Across the country, gyms and fitness studios are slowly starting to open back up again. While many people are eager to get back into their sweat routine, it makes sense to be a little cautious about doing so. The reality is that we’re still navigating the murky waters of a global pandemic and keeping safe is priority number one. Basically: we’re all trying to find the balance between keeping our bodies moving and healthy, and not catching or spreading COVID-19. Fortunately, it is possible to do both.

“Exercise is hugely beneficial to our overall health and so it is very important for all of us to find a way to exercise safely, and with confidence, during the pandemic," says Gwen Murphy, PhD, MPH, epidemiologist and the director of epidemiology for LetsGetChecked. "Exercise will help us to keep our blood pressure down, and can help improve our mood, energy level, and even help us sleep better. In these stressful times, these things may matter now more than ever.”

At the moment, she says, gyms are higher-risk areas because they’re usually enclosed spaces shared with others. However, many gyms and studios have pivoted, offering virtual classes and adjusting the way they operate in person. If you’re contemplating going back to the gym and want to make it a safer experience, follow this expert advice.

Understanding the CDC guidelines that all gyms must follow will allow you to make an informed decision.

“If you do end up going to your indoor gym, it is highly important that you take care of yourself as well as make sure your gym is consistently following COVID-19 safety protocol,” urges Ali S. Khan, MD, MPH, MBA, chief medical strategist for Unity Band. “There should not be more than your state’s allowed indoor percentage of people in the gym, everyone should be wearing masks at all times, you should be staying a safe six feet apart from each other, and staff should be wiping down all surfaces consistently.” Temperature checks at the door and access to hand sanitizer and/or a sink are also ideal.

Dr. Khan advises bringing your own ‘safety kit’ while traveling and going to places like the gym. This kit ought to include an N95 face mask, EPA-approved List-N disinfectants, your own towels, paper products, disposable gloves, and antibacterial soaps.

“Wipe down the surfaces with an EPA-approved disinfectant wipe that you are likely to come into contact with, such as seats, workout equipment, weights, and handles,” says Dr. Khan. “It would also be a good idea to bring your own personal equipment if your gym allows it, which would limit the number of communal objects you're touching.” For example, you could bring your own weights, yoga matt, or jump rope.

If you have a flexible schedule, it is worth hitting the gym during the off-hours. This obviously looks a bit different in light of COVID with more people working from home.

“During your lunch time or when Sunday football is on are examples of ways to easily avoid the crowds,” says Evan Jay, PA-C, ATC, a certified physician assistant and certified athletic trainer at Redefine Healthcare. “To make sure you are going to the gym during off hours, call your gym before leaving or ask the staff when they have experienced quiet periods, and also what day they experience this.”

Keeping in line with the above advice, the fewer people you encounter, the better. There are many small gyms and studios (many of which are struggling to stay afloat during this time) that naturally have fewer people walking in and out of their doors compared to big-box gyms. These types of places often require you to sign up in advance, and limit their classes to about half the usual size. Your class could be as small as two to 10 people.

Get to class a minute before it begins and leave immediately after. If it’s not a set class, write down your workout strategy before arriving and move through it quickly.

“Although gyms should be taking extreme precautions when it comes to mask wearing, social distancing, and cleaning the equipment with the help of the CDC’s preventative steps, the virus is known to spread from person-to-person through respiratory droplets when people cough, sneeze, or talk,” says Dr. Khan. “The less time you spend at the gym, the better.”

Even some gyms that remain closed have chosen to host special one-off outdoor events that you can attend. You can also seek gyms and studios that have moved their classes entirely outside, or that have open-air facilities that allow better airflow. Generally speaking, being in an outdoor space versus an enclosed space is much safer during the pandemic.

Dr. Khan recommends choosing workouts that aren’t as strenuous if you’re indoors. “High-intensity training requires more oxygen than lower-intensity workouts, so any air restriction while wearing a mask is likely to be more noticeable during HIIT or indoor spin/running classes than something like restorative yoga,” he says. “Harder breathing also means COVID particles have an opportunity to travel farther than at our normal respiration rate, making mask wearing during workouts that much more critical for safety.”

If you’re feeling wary about working out at a gym, or if you’re simply unsure if your own gym is following all the necessary protocols, hang back and work out at home.

“See if your gym has online classes; most of them do. This is a great way to stay in touch with your gym friends as well as still do a workout class with your favorite instructor,” says Jay. “Inviting a friend can also be a way to motivate yourself to attend [the virtual classes]. This also can save commuting time and is a great way to break away from your schedule.”