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How to return to the gym: 8 mistakes to avoid

Here's why it may be best to keep more than 6 feet apart and not exercise behind someone.
Surgical Mask Hanging on Weight Equipment
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/ Source: TODAY

A room full of sweaty people who are breathing heavily sounds like the last place to be during a pandemic, but health clubs are reopening in parts of the country, posing a dilemma.

Fitness buffs who are excited and eager to resume their workouts also know the coronavirus outbreak continues to sicken people and take lives.

Georgia was one of the first states to lift restrictions on health clubs, allowing them to open on April 24. Many members have found their visits look different now than before the lockdown.

“You come in, wash your hands, come over to the front desk, we take your temperature, you sign your COVID release,” Radford Slough, owner of Urban Body Fitness in Atlanta, told NBC Nightly News about the precautions his company has implemented.

Fewer members than normal are being allowed inside and every other cardio machine is closed off with yellow “caution” tape.

So is it safe to return to the gym right now?

The main concern is still close contact with people who may be breathing heavily, or coughing or sneezing, said Dr. Marybeth Sexton, an infectious disease expert and assistant professor of medicine at Emory University in Atlanta.

“Gyms are by definition a tricky place to do appropriate social distancing because it’s very hard to space out the equipment appropriately and it’s also very hard to wear a mask when you work out,” Sexton told TODAY.

“You’re almost inevitably going to be in a place that’s relatively enclosed with other people and you don’t know their exposures or their symptoms. We do know you can be contagious before you have symptoms.”

If you are considering going to a gym that has reopened, Sexton recommended calling ahead and asking the staff to explain in detail what the new safety protocol is.

Ask questions such as:

  • Is the health club limiting the number of people who can come in at the same time?
  • Is the exercise equipment spaced out differently than before?
  • How is the equipment being cleaned in between people who use it?
  • Does the gym provide cleaning agents for members to wipe down the machines?
  • Does the club require members to wear masks for any activities?

Here are eight things to keep in mind:

1. Don't get too close to anyone.

No one really knows what’s ideal when it comes to social distancing, Sexton said. The standard recommendation of 6 feet may not be enough in a gym.

“There’s been some simulation that looks like particles might travel farther than that when people are strenuously exercising, but we don’t know a lot about how that applies in the real world or clinically in terms of being contagious,” she noted.

So keep your distance and be extra careful in more confined spaces like the locker room, or try to avoid it all together.

2. Don't forget to wear a mask, if you can stand it.

Doing cardio with a face mask on may not be possible, but lifting weights could be.

“If there’s anything you’re doing where you can tolerate having the mask on, I would,” Sexton said. “The mask you’re wearing helps to protect other people and the masks other people are wearing help to protect you.”

3. Don’t exercise next to or behind someone.

The exercise equipment should be at least 6 feet apart in all directions since people turn their heads when they’re working out, Sexton said. You may also want to leave at least one empty machine between yourself and others, depending on how far apart the machines are.

People could carry respiratory droplets behind them, especially if they’re moving fast on a treadmill, so don’t pick a treadmill right behind someone.

4. Don't forget to bring your own towel and water bottle.

If your gym provides towels, make absolutely certain they’re individual use only and immediately go to a laundry service after you use them. Sexton would prefer to bring her own towel.

She also recommended bringing your own water bottle since many people touch a communal water cooler, increasing your risk of catching the virus if you then touch your face without washing your hands.

5. Don't use a machine without wiping it down first.

The gym staff should be doing that in between users, but if cleaning agents are provided, members should be wiping down the machines, too, before and after using them.

“You certainly would contaminate the front of a treadmill or an elliptical by coughing or breathing if you’re walking or running without a mask on,” Sexton said.

She cautioned against bringing your own cleaner to the gym since some products contain bleach and others ammonia, so mixing the chemicals could be a concern. Go with what the gym is providing.

6. Don't take group classes.

Sexton would avoid working out with a personal trainer or going to even a small fitness or yoga class with a handful of people. Keep your distance and use virtual options, for now, for training and classes.

7. If you hit the pool, don't get too close.

The chlorine in the water will inactivate the coronavirus, but social distancing and frequently-touched surfaces continue to be an issue.

Sexton wouldn’t want to share a lane in a lap pool with somebody. Swimmers should also wash their hands after touching railings, ladders and tiles.

8. Avoid the gym if you’re at high risk for COVID-19.

That means anybody who is taking significant precautions because of their medical history or age. If you’re still tempted, review the gym’s safety protocol with your doctor, Sexton advised.

“Right now, older people and people who have medical conditions are in a group that’s been told to be very careful,” Sexton said. “But the fact is we all need to be that careful because we all have the capability of carrying coronavirus back to those people.”