Online fitness classes have helped you stay fit — and sane — since the COVID-19 pandemic began, but using your living room as a fitness studio was meant to be a temporary fix.
As states start lifting stay-at-home restrictions, your gym might be on the list of businesses ready to welcome you back (check local guidelines for specifics), but how safe is it to return to your favorite high-intensity group fitness class?
“Being in an enclosed space with multiple people from outside your home increases your risk,” says Dr. Greg Poland, professor of medicine and infectious diseases at the Mayo Clinic and spokesperson for the Infectious Diseases Society of America.
Research published in the journal Emerging Infectious Disease found more than 100 people who participated in high-impact exercise classes at a South Korean fitness studio were diagnosed with COVID-19. There were no cases in classes with fewer than five participants or among students who took Pilates and yoga classes in the same facility.
The researchers cited the large classes, small spaces, sweat-drenched environment, and heavy breathing during the intense workout for more dense transmission. “Most group exercise rooms have inadequate air exchange, and people are crowded together,” Poland says. “It further increases the risk when everyone is huffing and puffing.”
Increased social distancing is required during high-intensity physical activity thanks to a phenomenon known as the “slipstream.”
When you breathe, respiratory particles remain in the air. Remaining six feet apart — the recommended spacing for social distancing — is sufficient to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection if you are breathing normally. Heavy breathing while indoors requires greater social distancing to protect against COVID-19 because the slipstream is longer.
A 2020 study found the risk of COVID-19 contamination is highest when people are positioned directly behind each other. Researchers recommend steering clear of the slipstream by staying at least four meters (12 feet) apart.
Poland attributes the “slipstream” for the impact. During high-intensity exercise, particles from your breath, sneezes or coughs remain in the air and the person behind you moves through these droplets — called the slipstream — coming in contact with the saliva particles.
A 2020 study examining the impact of social distancing and the slipstream on COVID-19 spread found the risk of contamination is highest when people are positioned directly behind each other. Researchers recommend steering clear of the slipstream by staying at least four meters (12 feet) apart. “I’ve never been in an exercise room where you would get that kind of space,” Poland says.
Group fitness studios are practicing more intense cleaning procedures and working to maintain social distancing.
Equinox worked with infectious disease experts to establish its reopening procedures, which include enhanced cleaning protocols and advanced booking and limited capacity for group fitness classes. SoulCycle studios implemented several new safety practices, including floor markers that indicate safe distances in locker rooms and bathrooms, and most of the bikes in the studio will remain empty to maintain social distancing.
At the Thomasville YMCA in Thomasville, Georgia, group fitness instructor Lauren Radford resumed teaching spinning classes in mid-May. The bikes were moved to a larger room to provide at least 10 feet between riders, shrinking the class from 32 people to nine; riders reserve their bikes online to confirm their spots. Each bike is wiped down before and after class and the YMCA extended the time between classes to allow for deep cleaning.
“Some people are just not ready to go back into a group fitness class yet,” Radford admits. “The virtual classes [that were offered when the YMCA was closed] worked so well that it looks like we’ll add a new platform to teach more classes online so we can continue to provide options and opportunities for all members.”
If you can’t wait to hop back on a bike or take a spot in your favorite cardio hip-hop class, Poland suggests asking fitness facilities about their enhanced cleaning procedures, looking for outdoor classes with better airflow and more space between students and, if possible, wearing a mask during class.
Before you hop back on a spin bike or take a spot in your favorite cardio hip-hop class, Poland suggests assessing your risk.
“What a wise person does is look at their personal, family and community risks and use that information to make a decision while taking appropriate measures of protection [like wearing a mask],” he says. “There is no such thing as no risk.”
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