Overall it’s up to you—but don’t discount the benefits of exercise.
Let’s be real: Gyms don’t necessarily conjure up thoughts of extreme cleanliness—despite staffs’ best efforts. And now, with the growing coronavirus outbreak, it’s easy to start feeling extra anxious around shared gym equipment and communal locker rooms.
It’s with good reason, of course: According to the most recent numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, there have been more than 105,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) worldwide, with more than 500 of those cases in the United States. And, while some local governments are taking measures to help prevent further spread of the virus—like recommending people work from home or asking those in large cities to limit mass transit—there are still lots of unanswered questions about what is (and isn’t) safe during an outbreak.
Case in point: Working out at your favorite gym or fitness studio. While getting your blood pumping certainly has its benefits to stave off illness and relieve stress (uh, both extremely relevant right now), there’s still some concern about whether you can safely take a class or if you should try out some at-home workouts. Here’s what you need to know about breaking a sweat while still protecting yourself from coronavirus.
What’s your risk of picking up coronavirus at the gym?
To understand your risk of contracting coronavirus, you need to first understand how the virus spreads: According to the CDC, coronavirus (aka, SARS-CoV-2—COVID-19 is the name of the illness associated with it) is mainly spread directly from person-to-person, usually via close contact (within six feet), through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. The virus is also spread indirectly, passing from person to person through contact with surfaces that have been touched by those infected.
Gyms in particular offer both direct and indirect transmission, Philip Tierno, Ph.D., clinical professor in the department of pathology at New York University, tells Health. “You can see the dangers imposed by a place like that on an ordinary basis—you’re dealing with hundreds of people over a day,”he says, adding that the risk of getting sick can increase with an outbreak like coronavirus.
Of course, your odds of contracting coronavirus also depend largely on where you live in relation to confirmed cases, says Tierno. In general, just like other public spots, the gym could easily house coronavirus germs—and that risk obviously rises as more cases of coronavirus are identified in a specific area.
“Any place where large numbers of people congregate at any one time over a period of time, allows them to shed their microorganisms or germs on various places,” he says. That means anyone infected (including those who don’t even know it), could leave their germs on dumbbells, bands, cardio equipment, and even door handles at the gym. And according to Tierno, these germs can survive for days, if equipment isn’t properly cleaned.
What can you do to decrease your risk of contracting coronavirus?
The best way to avoid coronavirus germs might sound simple, but it’s effective: Wash your hands—and keep washing them. “That’s the key to this whole process,” Tierno says. Before you go to the gym, halfway through, when you leave—make sure you scrub with soap and water, especially if you’re going to touch food afterward or you know you touch your face often. You also want to skip high-fiving your neighbor after a tough set and maybe throw them a thumbs-up instead.
While individuals’ biggest shield from the disease is hand washing, gyms and studios across the country have also taken extra steps to keep their spaces extra clean. Countless gyms and studios, including SoulCycle, Orangetheory, Equinox, and EverybodyFights (to name a few), have sent around emails telling clients of the extra precautions they’re taking to keep their studios clean—mainly, spending more time wiping down equipment and encouraging others to do the same. They also remind clients and trainers to frequently wash hands and stay home when sick.
But the responsibility of sanitizing machines isn’t only on gym staff—Tierno adds that you should make sure to wipe down your own equipment before and after every use. And while your gym may have disposable wipes available, it’s not a bad idea to carry around a set of your own—especially since you’ll be sure that they meet the CDC and EPA’s guidelines for approved products to kill coronaviruses.
Should you keep working out, or avoid the gym altogether?
The answer is ultimately up to you, but skipping a workout isn’t necessarily the answer. “When the words virus, disease, and transmission are thrown around, a normal response is to want to burrow into the couch and resurface in a few months,” says Jordan Metzl, MD sports medicine physician at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City and author of The Exercise Cure.
“Despite that initial desire, it’s extremely important to take care of your body and mind. This includes good sleep habits, healthy nutrition, and regular exercise.”
Of course, Dr. Metzl notes that, especially during outbreaks, it’s important to keep aware and use extra precautions (a crowded marathon may not be your best bet right now), keeping up your normal workouts is extremely valuable from a health perspective. “Overall, I want my patients to keep moving every day,” he says. “This keeps the body and immune system primed and ready to fight infection, which is extremely important for everyone.” Erica Lubetkin, a licensed mental health practitioner at Tru Whole Care in New York City, agrees that exercise can be especially beneficial right now. “Exercising can help regulate the autonomic nervous system and keep it in balance, reducing stress,” she tells Health.
If signing up for a class or heading to the gym for a workout puts you in panic mode, consider doing a workout at home or head outside for some sweat. Just remember it’ll do the body (and mind!) some good and know that your best defense from coronavirus is all in your hands—literally.
“The biggest problem is fear,” says Tierno. “People don’t realize there is something they can do. But you can wash your hands. It seems silly, but the principle is that you wash your hands so that you can use them to eat or prior to touching your face. That will go a long way.”
The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it’s possible that some data have changed since publication. We also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.