Update, March 16: Many cities and states, including New York state and Los Angeles, have temporarily closed gyms and fitness studios due to the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19).
Original post: As the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak continues, we're seeing large public events like conferences, music festivals, and sporting events cancelled or postponed all over the globe. (The Tokyo Olympics are still TBD.) It's enough to make you wonder if you should be avoiding even smaller public spaces, places like the gym, where you're sharing equipment and coming in contact with people sweating and panting. We asked Aruna Subramanian, MD, an infectious disease doctor and clinical medical professor at Stanford, and John Whyte, MD, MPH, the chief medical officer at WebMD, how concerned you actually should be about coronavirus at the gym, when it's better to stay home, and whether sweat and swapping dumbbells poses any risk.
Is It Safe to Go to the Gym During the Coronavirus Outbreak?
"The gym, like other public places, is safe as long as you take precautions," Dr. Whyte told POPSUGAR. That's because coronavirus is mostly spread "through direct contract with respiratory droplets," which are released when you sneeze and cough. It's less likely (although still possible) that you'll get coronavirus by touching a contaminated surface. In other words, you have less of a chance of picking up the virus by sharing dumbbells and using public machines than by standing near someone who's sneezing and coughing. (More prevention and safety tips in a minute.)
"Unless there is a full quarantine in your area, it is probably still OK to go to the gym," Dr. Whyte said. "Many gyms are using hospital-grade cleaners to sanitize equipment." Call your local facility to see what precautions they're taking and what their recommendations are for staying home versus hitting the gym.
That said, if you have a chronic medical condition that puts you at high risk of infection, or if you're the primary caregiver for someone at high risk, Dr. Subramanian recommended staying home. If you personally are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, such as fever, tiredness, and dry cough, "You need to seek medical care and be tested," Dr. Whyte said. The situation may call for you to self-quarantine and avoid coming into contact with other people. "Do not go to the gym or anywhere else if you have symptoms," Dr. Whyte advised. (Here's more on how to differentiate between COVID-19, the flu, and a common cold, as well as the currently-approved ways to treat it.)
Can You Transmit Coronavirus Through Sweat?
According to Dr. Whyte, there is no evidence that COVID-19 is transmitted through sweat. "It is a respiratory virus, so the lung is where the virus attacks," he explained. "Sweat doesn't contain respiratory droplets, so there's no current beliefs that sweat is a source of the virus."
For coronavirus prevention as well as for general hygiene, you should still wipe mats and gym equipment with sanitizing spray or wipes before and after use (make sure they're 60 percent or higher in ethanol or isopropyl). Sweat itself, though, won't transmit COVID-19. As Dr. Whyte put it, "Despite the fact that there is a lot of sweating going on in the gym, there's no evidence gyms are not safe."
How Can I Stay Safe at the Gym During the Coronavirus Outbreak?
Dr. Whyte recommended a few precautions you should take at the gym during the coronavirus outbreak.
- Avoid people who are sneezing or coughing.
- Stay six feet away from most people.
- Wash your hands often and for at least 20 seconds. (Here's the correct way to do it.) Dr. Subramanian also recommended carrying travel size hand sanitizer so you can quickly clean your hands after using equipment.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth. If you need to wipe sweat, use a disposable paper towel and wash your hands afterwards. "You don't want to be reusing a towel that might have germs," Dr. Whyte said. "It's too easy to put germs back on your face, so best to be prudent."
- Wipe down equipment with sanitizer before and after use. Here's more on the approved cleaning products that fight coronavirus.
- Sit on a towel.
- Take a shower after working out at the gym.
As far as using towels provided by your gym, Dr. Whyte said that higher-end gyms typically use the best-quality cleaning products. "Those should be OK to use." Check to see if clean towels are kept separate from dirty ones, and make sure that other patrons aren't touching clean towels and putting them back.
Here are more tips for avoiding coronavirus, the flu, and other infections at the gym.
Should I Still Exercise During the Coronavirus Outbreak?
In light of the novel coronavirus outbreak, "one of the ways to effectively fight the virus to be healthy," Dr. Whyte said. "Being active is one way to do that, along with healthy eating." In fact, exercise may actually boost your immune system. Still, if you're feeling anxious about coronavirus, Dr. Whyte noted that you don't necessarily have to go to the gym to work out. You can pull up at-home bodyweight workouts or workout videos to exercise right in your living room or garage. The exercise may even boost your mood and relieve some of your anxiety.
It's also fine and even recommended to walk, run, or exercise outdoors, Dr. Subramanian told POPSUGAR, because you're not in a closed environment where recirculating air could continuously distribute the virus. As long as your area isn't under complete quarantine, "it's actually very safe to be outside in this type of situation," Dr. Subramanian said. "It's a good idea to stay healthy and to exercise as much as possible, and being outdoors and getting fresh air is definitely recommended."
If you've been following coronavirus news, you know the situation can change quickly. While there's no current evidence that the gym is unsafe for most people, you should take specific precautions if there is a coronavirus outbreak in your community, if you're experiencing symptoms, or if you have underlying conditions that increase your risk, such as heart, kidney, or lung disease. "If the outbreak becomes more widespread, it might be time to rethink public places," Dr. Whyte said. "But right now, for most communities, going to the gym — exercise in any format — is fine."