Should you wear a mask and gloves to the gym? The short answer is “yes.” Heavy spoke with physicians who agreed that wearing personal protective equipment to the gym is a good idea. But it’s only beneficial if people utilize the gear correctly. One doctor compared wearing a mask to using a condom during sex: It’ll protect you only if worn properly.
Workout facilities and other health clubs are making plans to reopen as stay-at-home restrictions begin to ease across the country. But the spread of the coronavirus remains a threat and recent polls show that a majority of Americans (approximately 68%) are at least somewhat concerned about becoming infected or someone they know getting sick.
The gym is a potential hot spot because of the high number of surfaces people touch, especially when using weights or other shared exercise equipment. In addition, when someone is breathing more heavily, they emit more droplets into the air and therefore increase the odds of transmitting the virus if they have it.
Dr. Dean Winslow, an infectious disease specialist at Stanford Health Care, and Dr. Jake Deutsch, the founder of Cure Urgent Care in New York, spoke with Heavy about what people should know before heading back to the gym. Both cautioned that exercising outside is still the safer option and that people should abide by guidelines issued by their state health departments.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Coronavirus Symptoms Can Take Up to Two Weeks to Manifest & Wearing a Mask Helps Prevent You From Infecting Others
There has been a debate in the United States about whether wearing a mask in public is necessary, specifically for those who are not sick, and the rules have varied based on location. For example, In California, face coverings were legally required outside of the home in San Francisco. But city leaders in San Diego left the decision up to businesses. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine recommended face coverings but stopped short of legally requiring citizens to wear them. White House staffers are now required to wear them, although President Donald Trump was not expected to don one.
One of the major problems with the coronavirus is that a person can be infected and pass along the virus without knowing it. Johns Hopkins University cited a study that showed as many as 50% of those with COVID-19 show no symptoms. Infected people may also be asymptomatic for up to two weeks before realizing they are sick.
“We know people can be shedding the virus for a couple of days before they develop symptoms,” Winslow said. “I think it’s good to remind your readers that the purpose of laypeople wearing masks out in public is not to prevent them from getting infected. It’s for them to prevent spreading the infection to other people if they happen to be one of these individuals that are shedding the virus that may have no symptoms.”
Deutsch further stressed the importance of being cognizant about not touching the mask or the face. “You can’t say there’s a low risk of getting sick just by wearing a mask because the reality is that people touch their masks, which is like touching their face. And then wearing it incorrectly where your nose isn’t covered. Or taking them off to drink something. Unless you’re adhering to pretty strict procedures, there is so much room for error that it does seem quite a bit ridiculous.”
Deutsch compared safe practices at the gym to safe sex. “The safest sex is abstinence. When it comes to the gym, the safest workout is at home.”
He added, “Obviously if someone is saying, ‘I really want to go back to the gym,’ they’re not that concerned about getting sick. If you were still worried about getting sick, you wouldn’t leave your house. Because that’s what we know prevents disease spread.”
2. People Should Exercise With Less Intensity While Becoming Accustomed to Wearing a Mask
It takes time to get used to wearing a mask because breathing is more labor-intensive. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that those with health conditions that make breathing difficult should not wear a face mask.
Those looking to get in a tough workout need to consider this new concern. Deutsch compared getting accustomed to a face mask to training for a marathon. “It’s not real comfortable. We’re certainly not conditioned to have something blocking our mouth while working out,” Deutsch explained. “Given the possibility that masks may be inevitable, it’s almost like we should start training to wear them. Like you would train for a marathon, you start short distances and then you build up endurance. I think this is going to have to be a consideration as well. Because until we know otherwise, [wearing masks] will be the new normal.”
Winslow reassured that even though wearing a mask while exercising may not be comfortable, it certainly will not hurt you. “I don’t think you do yourself any harm or anything other than that it’s really hard to breathe through a mask. It would just be hard to maintain the amount of oxygen that you need to take into your lungs. That’s why you breathe hard when you exercise. It’s that your muscles are consuming oxygen at a much more rapid rate than they are at rest. You have to breathe more rapidly and deeper to oxygenate your blood. So it’s not like you’re going to hurt yourself. But it’s just going to markedly decrease your ability to do a good aerobic workout.”
Winslow explained that, as a lifelong athlete himself, he understands the difficulty of breathing in a mask from his daily work at Stanford. He underscored that slowing down is going to be important while getting accustomed to the face covering. “If you’re doing a weight workout, I think it’s not too much of a hassle to wear a mask. However, running up and down the stairs in the hospital, wearing a surgical procedure mask, it’s really hard to breathe through them. So I think if you’re doing a really good workout on a treadmill or a stationary bicycle, it’s actually problematic to wear a mask. It’s ideal in terms of reducing the risk of transmitting the virus to other people. But just from an exercise physiology standpoint, it’s somewhat problematic.”
3. Touching Multiple Items While Wearing Gloves Defeats the Purpose of Wearing Them at All
Wearing gloves to the gym is more a matter of personal preference because of the precautions needed in order to benefit. Gloves are meant to prevent droplets from touching your skin. Studies have indicated the coronavirus can survive on surfaces like stainless steel for up to 72 hours.
But if you touch a surface with a glove and then touch your face, you’ve defeated the purpose of wearing the gloves at all. Touching multiple surfaces, such as multiple pieces of gym equipment, also negates the benefit of wearing a glove because you could be helping to transfer the virus from one area to another if droplets get on your glove, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Deutsch explained, “You touch things at the gym and it’s pretty hard not to do that. Any layer of protection you have is going to be helpful. But again, you might as well not wear gloves if you’re not going to be conscientious about what that means. If you touch the equipment, and then touch your mask or your face, wearing the glove makes absolutely no difference. But if you’re using that glove to touch things and then throw it out or decontaminate the surface of your glove so that nothing on your body is really touching any surface, that’s the idea.”
Winslow cautioned that gloves could give gym-goers a false sense of security, for the same reasons Deutch explained. Winslow said washing your hands or using hand sanitizer often, like after using a shared machine at the gym, is the best thing a person can do to prevent infection. “I think the best advice to give is washing your hands frequently and certainly after you touch a doorknob or something like that. If you have the opportunity to wash your hands or use an alcohol gel fairly shortly afterward, I think that’s certainly prudent. When we’re making rounds in the hospital, not just caring for COVID patients of course but in general, we’re very careful about washing our hands before and after and even at other times when you’re walking down the hall.”
Deutsch added that since there is no national health directive about gloves and masks, the final decision is up to individuals based on how much risk they’re willing to tolerate. “Not everybody is wearing gloves when they’re out at, for example, the grocery store. That may not be where your level of comfort is. It just depends on what’s actually going to be recommended, and what is going to be required or enforced.”
4. Indoor Group Classes Carry a Higher Risk & Exercising Outside Is the Safer Option
As gyms begin to reopen, indoor group exercise classes will be slower to return to normal. The coronavirus is more easily spread in enclosed spaces, especially when people are spending a prolonged amount of time together in one area.
Winslow says that if you can take a yoga or boot camp class outdoors, where the participants can spread out, go for it. He advocates exercising outside, rather than at an indoor gym, for right now. “I do running intervals out on the road. Obviously there’s no risk to anybody when you’re outside exercising hard,” Winslow said. “With the breeze blowing, the droplets fall to the ground fairly quickly. It’s easier to maintain social distance. So it’s not like even in relatively still air outdoors that you have significant amounts of the virus being suspended for long periods of time. … I really do encourage people to exercise outdoors. Particularly as the weather is getting nicer, there’s just so many psychological and physical benefits of exercise but I think the safest place to do it, at least for the time being, is outdoors if possible.”
Deutsch pointed out that even if an indoor group exercise class implements social distancing, how people behave before and after is equally as important. “If you’re congregating in a waiting area, you’re undermining the fact that you might space 8 feet apart in the class. I think that’s all part of the process.” He echoed Winslow’s assertion that exercising outdoors is the safer option. “I don’t think the hot yoga class, where people are dripping sweat and the room is stale and warm, would be an ideal environment,” Deutsch said. “But if you were doing yoga in a group outside, that’s definitely a better option.”
Deutsch also addressed the notion about whether regular exercise, and overall good health, helps people better fight off the virus. “In theory, if you don’t have terrible medical conditions, you will probably do better if you get sick. But I personally have treated so many people that had no medical problems and got really sick. That’s really a misnomer,” Deutsch explained. “Pushing it to go to the gym to ‘protect yourself’ is really the wrong mindset. The more important thought process is that everyone is vulnerable. And nobody knows what their personal illness will be like until they get ill. … While we need to balance staying healthy and staying safe, the priority really should be staying safe.”
5. Temperature Checks & Enhanced Cleaning Procedures May Be the New Normal at Gyms
As governors allow health and fitness clubs to reopen across the country, customers should not expect the facilities to look the same as before the stay-at-home orders were implemented. The White House stated in its reopening plan that gyms could reopen “if they adhere to strict physical distancing and sanitation protocols.”
More specific rules vary by state. The Ohio Department of Health issued guidelines that included limiting capacity, reducing class sizes, setting up hand-washing or hand sanitizing stations at the entrance of the building, disinfecting public areas and locker rooms every two hours and maintaining sign-in records for contact tracing. In Texas, gyms were permitted to reopen on May 18 but can only allow in 25% occupancy at a time and locker rooms will remain off-limits. In Arizona, gym owners were encouraged to limit operating hours and to have online signups for classes in order to avoid crowds.
Equinox explained its reopening plan on its website, and it includes enhanced cleaning. For example, there will be at least 30 minutes between group classes in order to allow for workers to disinfect the studio and any shared equipment. The company also says it is adding a “rigorous, deep-cleaning and disinfecting process three times during the day and once overnight. Designated areas of the club will be sectioned off during the day to facilitate the deep cleaning.”
Lifetime Fitness is asking its customers to wipe down equipment before and after using it, COO Jeff Zwiefel told Insider. Exercise machines and weights have also been spread out to help customers maintain a 6-foot distance from each other. Reservations are required for group classes.