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Are outdoor fitness classes safe now?

With better ventilation and more space available, experts believe that outdoor fitness classes can help people stay safe while exercising.
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/ Source: TODAY

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to disrupt daily life around the world, many are trying new ways to stay in shape. Some states have not yet reopened gyms; in some areas, newly reopened gyms have led to hundreds of people potentially being exposed to the coronavirus. Group fitness classes in particular are under scrutiny, and those that have begun often require intense precautions.

One potential solution: relocating those group fitness classes outdoors, suggest infectious disease experts.

Three different specialists told TODAY that while no activity is completely safe, outdoor workouts can significantly reduce risk.

"Doing group exercise activities outdoors is going to be much more safe than doing (it) indoors," said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore, Maryland and an infectious disease physician. "That could be much more conducive to social distancing and putting in measures that might make it less likely to see transmission."

Are there any exercises or routines that are safer than others?

According to Saad Omer, the director of the Yale Institute for Global Health and a professor of infectious diseases at the Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut, even when outdoors, people should try to focus on low-impact exercises.

"Studies that were done on indoor classes found that classes like yoga and Pilates had a lot lower risk than some of the more aggressive exercises," Omer said. "We think that's because there's a lot of heavy breathing going on, a lot of yelling going on, in (more intensive) situations."

It's also important that class instructors be able to make themselves heard without yelling, since projecting and speaking loudly can spread droplets further, according to Omer.

Experts recommended avoiding high-intensity workouts, which could lead to further spread of droplets.
Experts recommended avoiding high-intensity workouts, which could lead to further spread of droplets. Getty Images

"One of the things I would discourage is people yelling," he said. "I would minimize that by having a sound system so you don’t have to yell, especially in classes where there are a bunch of people in them."

How much distancing is necessary when working out outdoors?

Omer and Dr. Lawrence Stanberry, director of the programs in global health at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York, both said that classes held outdoors should make sure to spread out participants as far as possible.

"If you're outside, if you're spread out pretty far, if you're not breathing hard, the risk should be extremely low," said Stanberry.

Omer said that people should maintain at least 6 feet of distancing, but the more distance between participants there is, the safer the class will be.

"The more distance, the better," he said. "6 feet is a recommendation but if you can go beyond that, do."

What sort of protective measures should people take?

While there is less risk of transmitting the virus when outside and properly distanced, Omer still recommends that people who are exercising together wear face coverings.

He also advised that class instructors not use fans to keep the area cool.

Doing group exercise activities outdoors is going to be much more safe than doing (it) indoors."

Dr. Amesh Adalja

"Be careful about things like having fans there, which can help spread some of these droplets between people," he said. To stay cool, he advised trying to use a shaded area or work out during cooler hours.

What are some other benefits of outdoor classes?

Stanberry said that he believes the outdoor classes, and other outdoor activities, will help people stay healthy, both mentally and physically, as the pandemic continues.

"This virus isn't going to go away," he said. "I can only imagine how crazy people would be if they stayed in all summer, all fall, and then were forced to stay indoors all winter ... People need to get outside."

"This is a time where we can afford to have outdoor classes," said Omer. "... Health is not just a pandemic-related phenomenon, It’s our broader well-being. If you are doing these classes and they are outdoors and there isn’t a lot of yelling involved and there is social distancing and masking, that’s helpful."