Whether it's yoga class, weight lifting or laps in the pool, a trip to the gym is back on the schedule — or at least the wish list — for many people who've received the COVID-19 vaccine.
But is it truly safe to go?
Experts say fully-vaccinated people are more protected, but advised continued caution for a bit longer.
“It is so much safer than it was before,” Dr. Bruce Hirsch, an infectious disease physician at Northwell Health in Long Island, New York, and assistant professor at the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell, told TODAY.
“But the COVID epidemic has a different personality every month or two. It's sneaky, it's changing and this is a critical time… So what I ask people to think about is that we're almost there and we have a little more to go.”
Gyms — where members share exercise equipment and often work out near each other while breathing heavily — have been a source of concern since the start of the coronavirus crisis and there’s been debate whether the industry would even survive COVID-19. Many gyms were forced to close for part of 2020 and reopened with restrictions.
The worries linger: Earlier this month, a journal published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention highlighted COVID-19 outbreaks at health clubs in Honolulu and Chicago last summer and fall.
Still, there’s been much more optimism about the safety and prospects of gyms in 2021 as the country gets closer to herd immunity.
Here’s what to know about going to the gym if you’ve been fully vaccinated, which means it’s been at least two weeks since your second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, or the first and only dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine:
Keep wearing a mask and social distancing
To reduce coronavirus transmission in gyms, “attendees should wear a mask, including during high-intensity activities,” researchers advised in the CDC journal Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report when they reported the COVID-19 outbreaks in Honolulu and Chicago.
The vaccines are a game changer, but none is 100% effective — the 90-95% efficacy means 1 out of 20 vaccinated people could still get infected, Hirsch said.
“And most of the time, there are more than 20 individuals working out in a gym space, so I think it makes sense to wear a mask — not only for one's protection, but to protect other people around us,” he noted. “We still don't have the virus under control.”
There’s also concern about the spread of COVID-19 variants in the U.S. and what that means for vaccine efficacy.
Social distancing still also makes sense at the gym, though it’s less important if everyone around you has been vaccinated, Hirsch said.
The CDC urges fully vaccinated people to continue to take precautions in public and when gathering with unvaccinated people from more than one other household.
Assess your gym
If you feel hot or stuffy, it’s a sign there is not enough ventilation. Ask your health club how it handles the building’s air flow and whether fresh air is coming in.
“For any environment, what I'm concerned about is ventilation and crowding. Some gyms have a tremendous amount of space and excellent ventilation, and that's the kind of space that's a lot safer for anyone,” Hirsch said.
“Some workout spaces might have low ceilings and be relatively crowded and not have a lot of ventilation, and that would be a higher risk environment in terms of passing on viral infections.”
It’s safest when other gym members are vaccinated, too
Hirsch would feel confident exercising with a workout buddy, personal trainer or even a small group of people who were all fully vaccinated for COVID-19.
Be smart about group classes
It’s OK to participate in a group class that’s held in a large, well-ventilated room with a high ceiling and where people are able to stay at least at least six feet apart, Hirsch said.
But remember, heavy breathing can put virus in the air. High-intensity classes were cited in the COVID-19 outbreaks at health clubs in Honolulu and Chicago last summer and fall, though none of the instructors or members were vaccinated at that time.
Consider sticking to outdoor exercise just a bit longer
Outdoor exercise is still the much safer option because of the air circulation and ultraviolet light. Hirsch urged vaccinated people to continue to be very careful for another six to eight weeks. Then, when there are much lower amounts of coronavirus in the community, it’ll be safer still to go to the gym.
“I'm hopeful that by the end of April, we’ll have a situation resembling normal,” he said. “But it depends on the epidemic. This virus has thrown so many curveballs over the course of the last year that we don't know.”