Yes, It's Safe to Go to the Gym Right Now. Sort of.

·7 min read
Photo credit: AleksandarGeorgiev - Getty Images
Photo credit: AleksandarGeorgiev - Getty Images

As COVID-19 cases begin to rise again in all 50 states and the CDC is now recommending even vaccinated individuals wear masks indoors in certain cases, we must beg the question: how safe is it to go to the gym right now, if you should go at all? We asked doctors, infectious disease experts, and aerosol experts how they assess the risk.

Per the CDC, those who are and aren't fully vaccinated should consider wearing mask indoors in areas of high transmission or if they have an at-risk person at home. Most gyms and fitness centers are allowing vaccinated patrons to enter and exercise without a mask, however some cities like Los Angeles are re-implementing mask mandates as infection rates are on the rise. What does this mean for gymgoers, both regular and aspiring?

How does COVID-19 spread in gyms?

Imagine a viral disease like Covid spreading like secondhand smoke, analogizes Linsey Marr, PhD, professor of environmental and water sources engineering at Virginia Tech and a leading aerosol expert. "For every droplet [containing the virus] there are hundreds more microscopic ones that are too small for us to see, and those remain floating in the air," says Dr. Marr. "Even if you're farther than six feet away, you can easily be exposed to viruses from someone who's infected." If this is compounded with a poor ventilation system in the gym, these viral particles can build up in the air like cigarette smoke in an enclosed room. That heightens your chances of breathing them in and potentially getting infected, she says.

Photo credit: Men's Health
Photo credit: Men's Health

According to Dr. Marr, your chances of contracting Covid-19 from a gym setting as a vaccinated person is actually lower now than it was in 2020, since the absolute number of cases is lower now. However, this could change due to the highly contagious Delta variant. So here's what experts recommend now.

I'm vaccinated, should I go to the gym?

There are some caveats to going to the gym unmasked as a vaccinated person, says Gavin Harris, MD, assistant professor of critical care medicine and infectious disease at Emory University School of Medicine. According to Dr. Harris, going to the gym unmasked is theoretically okay, but ideally in a room full of other vaccinated people. Yet it can be hard to know if others are vaccinated, as many gyms aren't requiring proof of vaccination for patrons to enter the gym or attend classes, since they're participating in an honor system. Without knowing who you're working out with, there's always risk, says Dr. Harris.

So how do you decide if going to the gym is worth it if you're vaccinated? According to experts, consider it on a case-by-case and even region-by-region basis. High vaccinated areas with high exposure to the virus are less vulnerable, says Dr. Harris, while low-vaccinated areas with high exposure are at higher risk. Overall, Dr. Harris believes gymgoers not only need to consider their own risk, but discuss it with their families as well, understanding that the risk that can be brought home. "If you're in a highly vaccinated area, like the Northeast, you can feel pretty good that most people there are vaccinated as well, compare to lower vaccinated areas like Oklahoma and Arkansas," says Edgar Sanchez, MD, an infectious disease specialist at Orlando Health. "Even if you get infected, you're much less likely to get sick and end up in the hospital."

What does this mean for places like LA that are now requiring masks in indoor public spaces again, even for the vaccinated? This means the transmission rate has become very high, says Dr. Harris. "The more transmission increases, the stronger these variants become," says Dr. Harris. "Thus more breakthrough infections will occur. With rising transmission rates, the risk of going to the gym [at all] may outweigh the benefit."

I'm unvaccinated, what does this mean for me?

If you're unvaccinated, there's resounding agreement among experts: stay home. "If I were unvaccinated, I would not go," says Dr. Sanchez. "The Delta variant is way more contagious and affects young people way more than previous iterations. In a place like the gym where there's a crowd doing exertional activity where you're breathing harder, the potential spread is a lot right now."

"For unvaccinated individuals, this is an extremely high risk time right now," says Beth Thielen, MD, assistant professor of pediatric infectious diseases at University of Minnesota. "With the Delta variant spreading disease to younger and younger folks, now is the time to get vaccinated. Being young is no longer necessarily guaranteeing that you won't get severely ill."

What is the safest gym situation?

Your safest gym situation would be avoiding the gym completely and working out at home, says Dr. Marr. The second-best option would be only attending a gym that requires all patrons and staff to be vaccinated and/or wearing masks. Third, go to a fairly empty gym, she says.

How about a small boutique fitness studio like those specializing in Pilates or boxing? To Dr. Marr, those make the risk even higher. "Big space is your friend," says Dr. Marr. "That virus that behaves like cigarette smoke has a larger volume of air to become diluted." Unless your classes only allow one to two people, consider it just as dangerous as a crowded gym, she says.

As far as whether to mask up or not, there's a bit of disagreement among our experts. Dr. Marr suggests you can consider forgoing a mask if you're in a highly vaccinated region, you consider yourself healthy, and don't have any vulnerable people at home. Drs. Harris and Thielen disagree, imploring people to wear masks regardless of vaccination status if transmission rates are high. "It's not unreasonable for people to start thinking masking again, even if they're vaccinated," says Dr. Thielen. "In really high circulation areas, it may be the direction we're going in." Overall, our experts' tips for gymgoers: Go at off hours and stay away from crowded areas, especially if you're in a low vaccinated region.

If you're vaccinated and immunosuppressed, whether you're undergoing chemotherapy, or taking immune suppressing medications like corticosteroids, or have an autoimmune disease like lupus, Dr. Sanchez also wouldn't recommend hitting the gym at this time as the risk of severe illness from COVID-19 is a lot higher with the Delta variant now than the Alpha variant of 2020.

What can gyms do to keep people safe?

The best thing gyms can do at this time is require vaccinations, limit capacity, and bring in lots of outdoor air, if that means keeping doors and windows open, say Drs. Marr and Thielen. Plus, they should have good quality air filters, and should be clear that if patrons feel even a little bit off, they shouldn't come in.

Dr. Harris believes you should ask yourself these questions:

  • Is my gym or fitness center making things as low contact as possible?

  • Do they have an online reservation or check-in system?

  • Are they limiting the number of people who can workout at one time?

  • Do they have significant signage around masking if they can't require vaccinations?

  • Do they have good ventilation? Sanitation times?

"If vaccinated people want to protect themselves, the best thing they can do is be around other vaccinated people," says Dr. Thielen, who compares it to wearing a seatbelt in the car. The seatbelt won't totally prevent a car accident, but it will lessen your chances of a fatality from one.

The bottom line: It's up to how much you're willing to risk. Know your gym's policies and the Covid rates in your area. And if you haven't already, get vaccinated.

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