After just reading all the news about the spread of the new coronavirus, it can be very hard to concentrate on your routine with someone coughing, sneezing, sniffling, and snorting around you. So, how worried do you need to be? Should you skip the gym?
It’s a legitimate question, especially considering that the number of people in the U.S. affected by the new coronavirus has continued to grow since the first case of COVID-19 (the disease caused by the virus) was identified in the country, on January 21.
“This novel coronavirus is part of a family of viruses that causes the common cold,” infectious disease expert Amesh Adalja, M.D., a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, tells SELF. “We anticipate that it will spread in much of the same manner as the common cold does.”
That means it can be transmitted through close contact with those who are infected. And the gym—where people often jostle for floor space, share machines and equipment, and move side by side in group fitness classes—can definitely feel like close quarters. Here’s what you need to know if you can’t stop worrying about the new coronavirus at the gym.
How can the new coronavirus spread at the gym?
As Dr. Adalja explains, the new coronavirus is an “equal opportunity virus,” meaning that it can be transmitted in any close-quarters situations in your community, not just at the gym. But there are a few factors linked to gyms and fitness studios that can combine to possibly make the likelihood of transmission a little higher there, he says.
“Gyms are places where people congregate, where they touch a lot of surfaces, so you have to be more alert there, because there are going to be more people in a closer proximity,” he explains. “And people are often out of breath, coughing, and spitting, and doing other types of things that happen at gyms when people are exhausted.”
There are still some unknowns about transmission of the new coronavirus, but it’s likely that the highest chances of getting the virus occur with direct, person-to-person contact, he explains.
“Most of the transmission of this is from actually sick people and getting the droplets from their coughs and sneezes onto your mouth or into your nose,” Dr. Adalja says. “However, there may be some mild transmission going on from common touch surfaces, but it’s not the main mechanism for how this virus is spreading.”
Of course, there’s one bodily fluid that differentiates the gym/fitness studios from lots of other public spaces, and that’s sweat. The good news is the new coronavirus does not seem to be transmitted that way. While there are still a lot of unknowns regarding transmission of the new coronavirus in bodily fluids, the CDC believes it is most likely to be spread through respiratory droplets.
What can you do at the gym to stay safe?
While the new coronavirus is, well, new, the methods to protect against it are pretty tried-and-true.
“The same types of mechanisms and methods you use to protect yourself during flu season and cold season at the gym are the exact same methods you would use behind this coronavirus,” says Dr. Adalja.
That means frequently washing your hands and avoiding touching your face. (As for wearing a mask? That’d be overkill, says Dr. Adalja. Not only would that make breathing superhard during your workout, but the CDC also doesn’t recommend them as an option for healthy people to protect themselves against the virus.)
When you’re on the gym floor, you should always be wiping down the equipment or machines before and after your sets. Gyms provide disinfectant wipes or spray cleaner and paper towels for this specific reason, so make sure you are putting them to use. If your gym doesn’t, or you want to bring your own, you can choose products from this list, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) deems acceptable against the new coronavirus.
Many gyms are also now offering alcohol-based antibacterial hand sanitizer to give your hands a quick and convenient cleaning. (Make sure it contains at least 60% alcohol, or stash your own in your gym bag. And when you use it, make sure you are applying enough to cover the surface of your hands and rubbing it in until it dries.)
And consider physical distance from your friend. According to the CDC, virus transmission is most likely between people who are within six feet of each other. So if you see someone coughing or sneezing—especially if they aren’t covering it—on the cable machine and you want to do pull-downs, maybe you should consider heading over to the less-populated free weights section to do some dumbbell rows instead.
How can gyms help prevent coronavirus spread?
Just as tried-and-true methods reign supreme for personal prevention, the same applies on the larger-scale business level. The good news is that the regular cleaning supplies most gyms already use should be effective against the new coronavirus, Dr. Adalja says.
“It’s not a very hearty virus, and it is inactivated by the same types of cleaning products that anybody would use to clean during cold and flu season,” he says.
The CDC recommends businesses “routinely” clean frequently touched areas with the cleaning supplies normally used and provide disposable wipes so people can wipe down objects or areas before use. As of now, it doesn’t recommend any additional disinfection besides routine cleaning or specify how often that should be.
While there are no specific recommendations for gyms, many chains throughout the country have already started ramping up their own response to help their members feel more at ease.
So how worried should you really be about the new coronavirus at the gym?
As of now, Dr. Adalja doesn’t recommend avoiding the gym—unless you have certain medical conditions that may make you more likely to pick up any infection. “It’s the same advice I would give someone during influenza season,” he says.
Still, if the news about the new coronavirus is really freaking you out, and you can’t stop worrying about every cough and sneeze from your fellow gymgoers, you might feel better mentally if you bang out some at-home workouts for awhile. Remember, taking care of your mental health is just as important as caring for your physical health.
The advice and information in this story is accurate as of press time, but it’s possible that some data points and recommendations have changed since publication.