New York is one of the last states where gyms have remained closed during the pandemic — but Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that gyms there could reopen as early as Monday with new safety protocols, such as mandatory masks, reduced capacity and updated ventilation systems.
"If it's not done right, it can be a problem and we've seen that," Cuomo said about the reopening during a press conference on Aug. 17.
Experts agree gyms can be problematic: "Indoor exercise is not wise," Dr. Brooks Gump, an epidemiologist and professor of public health at Syracuse University, tells CNBC Make It. Even with regulations, the safest way to exercise is still outdoors wearing a face mask or inside your own home, he says.
Before you go to the gym, it's important to consider factors like the Covid-19 positivity rate in your community, Gump says. For example, in places like Florida, where there's very high positivity rate of about 14%, you shouldn't go to the gym, he says. New York's positivity rate, on the other hand, is currently less than 1%, which means it's likely safer.
Also make sure that gym staff and other patrons are actually complying with proper safety protocol, Gump says. Are patrons and employees wearing masks, is equipment appropriately spaced out and are the machines being cleaned, for instance? "If not, just avoid that gym," he says.
Once you're in the gym, the type of workout you do and equipment you use could also impact your risk of transmission. Gump adds that there's not a lot of data that compares different types of exercise, but we can make estimations based on how the virus is transmitted. "Look at those all those other factors before trying to think that you can control transmission by doing a weightlifting instead of running," he says.
Here's what experts want you to know about common gym workouts:
Yoga practices typically involve deep-breathing, which may produce more respiratory droplets than breathing at a normal capacity, says Charlotte Baker, assistant professor of epidemiology in public health at Virginia Tech. Many yoga classes are practiced in studios, which means several people's respiratory droplets will be confined to the enclosed space. Researchers in South Korea found that "the lower intensity of Pilates and yoga did not cause the same transmission effects as those of the more intense fitness dance classes."
Expert advice: "Still wear a mask during yoga," even with the deep-breathing, Baker says. Opening windows is one way to introduce more airflow in a room, she adds. Mats should also be positioned with at least six feet of distance from one another, and wiped with a disinfectant before and after use. Of course, practicing yoga outdoors would be the safest option, but it may not be feasible given the weather, Gump says.
Using a cardio machine, such as a treadmill or elliptical, is "a difficult exercise to manage," because you tend to breathe heavily, Gump says. If a person is infected with Covid-19 and they're doing cardio exercise in a gym, they're potentially adding a lot of viral load to the ambient air around them, he says.
Expert advice: Machines should be adequately spread out or taped off so people can maintain physical distance of at least six feet, and cleaned after every use, Baker says. Wearing a mask (not a bandana or neck gaiter, which are less effective) is key, she says. Although it may make it slightly more difficult to breathe, a mask will not interfere with your exercise performance or impact your oxygen intake.
Free weights and resistance machines are considered "high-touch" objects, and they have a variety of surfaces that can be difficult to clean. "A lot of gyms have actually put in place a person who, that's their whole job right now, is to go through and make sure that's getting cleaned," Baker says.
Weight rooms can also get crowded, or equipment might be located in a high-traffic area of the gym.
Expert advice: Some gyms have moved free weights and equipment to basketball courts or even outdoor space to allow for more social distancing, Baker says. Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth when handling equipment such as weights. (Wearing lifting gloves may deter you from touching your face, but it's not a replacement for hand hygiene.) Wipe any surfaces you touch, and then wash your hands with soap and water or use hand sanitizer after handling any shared equipment, according to the CDC.
The study out of South Korea traced a cluster of 112 Covid-19 cases back to group fitness classes, specifically dance cardio workouts. Researchers hypothesized that the large class sizes, small spaces and intensity of the workouts contributed to the extent of the spread.
"The moist, warm atmosphere in a sports facility coupled with turbulent air flow generated by intense physical exercise can cause more dense transmission of isolated droplets," they wrote.
Bottom line: Vigorous indoor group exercise in confined spaces, such as indoor cycling or high-intensity interval training, for extended periods of time increases your risk of transmission.
Expert advice: If you like the camaraderie of group workouts, the safest thing to do is to stick to virtual classes or workouts that are hosted outdoors, Baker says. However, if you do go to a group workout class at a gym, the classes should be small enough to allow at least six feet (two arms' length is an easy way to picture it), she says.
See if the staff is disinfecting equipment in between classes, or they're only spraying at the beginning of the day, she says.
And signing up for the first class of the day could make a difference, simply because fewer people will have been in the space. And for any workout that requires equipment, such as cycling shoes or boxing gloves, you should bring your own.
There's no evidence that Covid-19 has spread through recreational water such as a pool or natural body of water, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Chemicals in chlorine are believed to kill the virus that causes Covid-19, while large bodies of water like the ocean may dilute the virus. What makes swimming at a gym potentially risky is the other people who you may encounter at the pool, Baker says.
Expert advice: The goal is to avoid crowds of people, Baker says. Stick to pools that require guests to sign up for specific swim times, she says. Be sure to wash your hands or use hand sanitizer often and wear a mask when you're out of the water and around others.