Going back to the gym? What you need to know to stay safe

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After avoiding crowds, wearing masks, and pivoting to at-home workouts during the pandemic, returning to the gym feels exciting—and maybe a little intimidating.

Mask requirements are being loosened across the country. But because exercising and the resulting heavy breathing present a greater risk of spreading COVID-19 and other illnesses, it's normal to feel hesitant about visiting a health club or workout studio. Don't fret. Take this expert advice for how you can stay safe as you return to the gym.

Know your studio’s protocols

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Make sure to follow your gym's protocols to stay safe

Gyms and workout studios should be taking precautions to keep patrons and employees safe, at least until a “vast majority” of people are vaccinated, says William Li, MD, president and founder of the Angiogenesis Foundation, which studies blood vessels and, more recently, the effect COVID-19 has on them. Gyms should provide plenty of hand sanitizer, wipe down equipment throughout the day, and open windows or doors when possible to keep air circulating. For their part, gym goers should wear masks, wash or sanitize their hands frequently, and social distance when possible, recommends Dr Li. “COVID-19 is most easily transmitted indoors like in a gym where air circulation may not be great,” Dr. Li says. “Other members working out may be breathing heavily which can spread aerosolized coronavirus into the space. If you are vaccinated and wearing a mask, you’ll be extra-protected at the gym.”

Luxury fitness club Equinox set up a task force with medical and infectious disease experts to develop safety protocols. The “Equinox Standard” requires patrons complete a form that states they are feeling healthy; limits capacity with pre-booking of both group fitness classes and gym floor time; requires social distancing among gym users; and implements EPA- and CDC-approved sanitation protocols.

Boutique studios have also upped their COVID-risk game. Ashley Camerini, CEO of Rumble Boxing, a luxury boxing and training studio, says that all Rumble clubs are following similar guidelines. Rumble’s protocols include mandatory masks, single-use of shared equipment during classes, social distancing, increased ventilation, and disinfection with an electrostatic sprayer, which aerosolizes the disinfectant.

Gym safety protocols are likely to change in the coming months as local guidelines determine what businesses can and can’t reopen further, so keep an eye out for new updates from your gym.

Get vaccinated if you can

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One of the best ways to stay safe is to get vaccinated.

One of the best ways to stay safe at the gym (and anywhere in public) is to get vaccinated. The COVID vaccines are proven to be highly effective at protecting against COVID, especially severe cases, and new research shows that it is very unlikely that vaccinated individuals could carry and spread the virus. It's important to wait until you're “fully vaccinated," says Dr. Li, meaning two weeks after your second Moderna or Pfizer dose or single Johnson & Johnson shot. “At this point, your body will be maximally protected against the coronavirus that causes COVID-19," Dr. Li explains. "Even though there’s a chance you can still get infected, you will be very unlikely to get very sick.”

That said, being vaccinated doesn’t make you exempt from your gym’s rules. Certain gyms may extend the timeline for wearing a mask, social distancing, and wiping down surfaces as you work out, so it’s important to keep doing it to ensure everyone feels safe.

Be mindful of busy times

class size
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Check the class size ahead of time and avoid crowded classes.

It’s still a good idea to avoid crowds, so ask your gym about its max capacity or class size before walking in. Many gyms continue to operate below full capacity and offer ways for you to check how busy it is online or by calling ahead. You can also try to avoid the pre- and post-work crowds—the busiest times for most gyms—by going during off-hours, such as mid-morning or afternoon (if your schedule allows).

Mask up the right way

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A clean, dry mask is essential.

For an added measure of protection, you can bring your own personal protective equipment, or PPE. For starters, you'll want to bring a clean, dry mask every time you go to the gym—we love Athleta’s masks for working out, as they help wick sweat and provide adequate ventilation as you move. It’s important to start with a dry mask because they can become less effective when they are damp. Dirty masks can also cause “maskne,” or acne caused or worsened by wearing face masks. You'll also want to wash your mask, as well as your clothes and any towels you bring with you, in hot water when you do the laundry. The virus can live on fabrics for up to 72 hours, according to a recent study conducted in hospital settings, but washing the material at a high temperature removes the virus.

Sanitize equipment surfaces or BYO gear

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Use hand sanitizer often to kill germs and avoid infection.

COVID is more likely to spread from person-to-person contact than through surfaces. The threat of transmission from hard surfaces is considered "low" by the CDC, but communal equipment comes into contact with more people and may pose more of a risk. The CDC warns gym goers about contact with frequently touched surfaces and recommends wiping down equipment before and after use with sanitizing wipes or sprays and thoroughly washing your hands after touching or sanitizing shared equipment. Cleaning wipes from your gym should be enough to disinfect equipment, but you can also bring your own portable pack of wipes. Though many, if not all, gyms have an abundance of sanitizer stations for you to use, you may want to bring your own hand sanitizer as well.

You may also bring your own physical equipment—or may be require to by the studio—such as a yoga mat or barbell shoulder pad. Be sure you clean it carefully with sanitizing products once you get it home, though, to avoid tracking studio-floor or gym germs into your house.

Ease back in to your workouts

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Take it easy your first few weeks back to avoid injury.

COVID isn't the only risk to your health you might face when getting back to the gym. If you haven’t been exercising regularly since the pandemic began, it’s best not to try and make up for lost time your first day back, lest you injure yourself. You may not be lifting as heavy or running as far or fast as you were more than a year ago, and that’s okay. “The best advice I would offer is to take things one day at a time and one step at a time,” says Shayra Brown, NASM-CPT, a certified personal trainer at Blink Fitness. “Your fitness journey is not a sprint, rather a marathon. I encourage everyone to embrace the process.”

You also may want to take more rest days than before for when you’re sore or just want to avoid the gym crowds. But they don't have to be full days off, says Brown—you may opt for some light cardio (such as walking) or core work, foam rolling, and stretching to keep your body moving without getting tired out. If it’s in your budget, Brown suggests seeing a personal trainer to avoid injury and get the most out of your workouts.

For those feeling insecure about heading back to an in-person gym, it may be useful to schedule some virtual personal training sessions through a service like Fyt, Future, or Flexit. This way, you can determine your current fitness level and start to implement some exercises that you’ll feel comfortable doing in a gym.

Do what makes you feel safe

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Do what makes you feel safe, even if that means taking a few extra precautions.

Many states have already loosened COVID restrictions, so some gyms may not require masks or social distancing. However, experts still recommends wearing a mask and social distancing when possible, even if your gym doesn’t require you to. “We are still in the middle of a pandemic,” Dr. Li says.

This is especially important if you're unvaccinated or live with people who are, as you are at higher risk for contracting, spreading, and getting sick from COVID-19. Until we get closer to reaching herd immunity, it’s safest to continue taking safety measures in crowded indoor settings like a gym.

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