Gym rats may want to burpee at home just a little longer

Fitness classes shown to be a super-spreader situation. Protection depends on masks and better ventilation.

Laura Hensley 5 minute read February 26, 2021
Fitness centre

A new study suggests inconsistent mask use in gyms can cause COVID-19 to spread. Getty

An earlier version of this article was first published in November 2020.

Gym goers should remain at least six feet apart and wear masks while working out, even during high-intensity activities, according to a recent report by the Centre for Disease Control.

The report looked at a super-spreader event that occurred at a fitness facility in Chicago between August and September 2020. Of the 81 patrons who attended in-person fitness classes during this time, 68 per cent tested positive for COVID-19. It is believed that of those infected, 78 per cent were in class while potentially contagious, and 40 per cent attended classes after they began to feel COVID symptoms.

The majority of gym goers interviewed by the CDC reported that they were inconsistent with their mask use while working out.

A second report released by the CDC looked at a series out outbreaks in three gyms in Hawaii during the summer of 2020. A fitness instructor tested positive for COVID-19. Before experiencing virus symptoms, the instructor taught classes at two different fitness studios after which 10 patrons — including a second fitness instructor — later tested for COVID. The second fitness instructor taught several courses at a third gym before experiencing symptoms; 11 people who attended these training sessions later tested positive or began to feel symptoms of COVID-19.

These two spreader events beg the question: how safe are gyms, really?

“I completely value gyms and physical activity, and understand the benefits from a physical health and mental health point of view,” says Jeffrey Siegel, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Toronto who specializes in air filtration and indoor air quality.

“And so I feel a little conflicted about what I’m about to say: gyms represent a higher-risk environment.”

Why gyms are higher risk

It’s not just Siegel who has doubts. Health Canada also lists going out to “gyms and athletic studios” as high risk, alongside bars and nightclubs, casinos, crowded public transportation and large religious/cultural gatherings. Because of the serious outcomes of COVID-19 and how the virus spreads, gyms can be prime environments for transmission, Siegel says. He acknowledges that every space is designed differently, but the very nature of exercising inside poses risk.

“Number one, gyms can be crowded; two, they can be poorly ventilated; and three, you spend a significant amount of time in the environment working out,” he says. “Adding to that, the high-risk also comes from the fact that in many cases, people can’t or don’t wear masks in gyms.”

Dr. Nazeem Muhajarine, professor of community health and epidemiology at the University of Saskatchewan, previously told Healthing that returning to a gym all comes down to a personal perception of risk.

While heavy breathing comes with exercise, he said the risk depends on the space. “How big is the floor space? How high are the ceilings? What is the ventilation system? Are the doors open?”

Other risk factors include shared equipment and loud talking — in some classes, an instructor may shout over music or the sound of equipment to be heard, or to motivate the people exercising.

Not all spaces operate the same, and some workout classes are possibly even higher risk. An indoor spinning studio in Hamilton, Ont., was linked to a COVID-19 outbreak, even though the facility followed provincial health guidelines.

But even with risk-mitigation tactics, such as defined workout spaces that allow for physical distancing and cleaning down equipment, a strong ventilation system is crucial. SARS-CoV-2 spreads through both droplets and aerosols, and improving the quality of air filtration reduces the transmission risk, Siegel says.

“Not every gym owner controls the HVAC system — there’s a lot of rented spaces — but I would hope that the people who are running gyms are adding ventilation where it’s possible,” he says.

“Where that’s not possible in the central system, they’re adding things like portable filters to reduce the risk further.”

Siegel encourages all patrons to have conversations with gym owners and the people managing the space. Asking questions about the air filtration system, cleaning protocols, occupancy rules and the other safety precautions they’re taking can help patrons make informed decisions.

“If you have people that you routinely come in contact with who are vulnerable, like older family members or people that have other underlying conditions, then I think we should have a lot of caution about going into gyms,” he says.

Can we make gyms safer?

Last November, research out of the University of Saskatchewan found that face masks don’t hinder breathing during exercise, meaning gyms could implement face covering rules in their spaces.

“This is important when fitness centres open up during COVID-19 since respiratory droplets may be propelled further with heavy breathing during vigorous exercise and because of reports of COVID-19 clusters in crowded enclosed exercise facilities,” the researchers wrote.

One permanent change that will make gyms and all indoor spaces safer in the future is better ventilation systems, Siegel says. Multiple studies have shown the importance of ventilation and air flow — especially when it comes to the spread of viruses.

“I would love for the next time there’s a pandemic, or even just ordinary flu season, that a gym can say, ‘Look, we have excellent filtration, we maximize ventilation, we have these cleaning protocols for the equipment, and we keep people further apart based on what we learned from the pandemic,’” he says.

“And I hope that all of us, when we’re making a decision about what gym to use, look at factors like that as well.”

With files from Emma Jones.

A version of this story was first published in November 2020 but has been update to reflect more recent research.

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