Are gyms safe? Intense workouts, poor social distancing can increase risk of Covid-19 infection, say experts

One study traced more than 100 infections to a single dance fitness workshop


                            Are gyms safe? Intense workouts, poor social distancing can increase risk of Covid-19 infection, say experts
(Getty Images)

Gyms are opening their doors to fitness enthusiasts in some parts of the country.  But should you head out and break a sweat, even as the Covid-19 threat is refusing to die down? Experts think the new coronavirus could rapidly spread by exploiting conditions in the gym. Adding weight to this is a South Korean study, where scientists traced more than 100 infections to one fitness dance workshop.

What is more, the study suggested that the risk is higher with high-intensity workouts than low-intensity ones. "This is why I think opening up gyms with cardio is concerning as increased intensity of workouts will facilitate spreading of #SARSCoV2," Dr Krutika Kuppalli,  infectious diseases physician and biosecurity fellow at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, who is not involved in the study, tweeted.

Their investigation revealed that eight dance instructors had the disease during a February 15 workshop.  The new coronavirus caught them off guard: they showed no symptoms at that time, allowing them to trained intensively for hours. About twice a week, the instructors took classes lasting for 50 minutes at different facilities. With elaborate contact tracing, the team could link 112 Covid-19 cases with fitness dance classes in 12 different sports facilities in Cheonan, a South Korean city.

"The instructors and students met only during classes and did not have contact outside of class. On average, students developed symptoms 3.5 days after participating in a fitness dance class," the team wrote in their study. The team also noted low-intensity workouts such as pilates and yoga have a lower risk. This is because none of the students participating in these classes in the same space contracted the virus.

Commenting on why cardio increases the risk of spread, Dr Kuppalli, told MEA WorldWide (MEAWW): "With higher intensity workouts, you are exerting yourself more and thus breathing harder and with greater force." And with faster breathing, infected individuals can spread the virus through droplets further, potentially reaching more individuals than a person who is engaging in a low-intensity workout like yoga, she added.

Disinfecting equipment is not easy (Getty Images)

What makes gyms risky?

Germs love gyms. One study found drug-resistant bacteria, flu virus and other pathogens on about 25% of the surfaces in four different athletic training facilities. "The level of danger that a gym poses depends on various factors, such as the size of the space, number of individuals in the space and how close they are, and level of intensity of work-out that is being performed by individuals in the space." 

"When you have a relatively high density of people exercising and sweating in a contained space, you have conditions where communicable diseases can spread easily,"  Dr James Voos, the chairman of orthopedic surgery at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center, and senior author of the study, told The New York Times. And disinfecting them is no easy feat. For instance, dumbbells and kettlebells are "high-touch surfaces and they come in strange shapes, making it difficult to clean,  Dr Deverick Anderson, from Duke University Medical Center in Durham, told The New York Times.

The safest option is working out from home (Getty Images)

How to reduce chances of infection

The bottom line is there are some risks. Still, fitness enthusiasts can take some measures to lower them. Dr Kuppalli recommends maintaining good hand hygiene as much as possible.  Wiping down machines before and after use, and wearing a mask to limit the spread of infectious particles could help.

The safest option, however, is to work out from home. Peloton, an American exercise equipment company, has become increasingly popular in the Covid-19 era. "In areas with continued or increasing community transmission, I would discourage going to the gym and focus on what you can do at home or outside," Saskia Popescu, an infection prevention epidemiologist, and biodefense researcher, told Vox.

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