Do you remember the hygiene hypothesis? Popularized in the 1980s, the idea suggests that lack of exposure to germs and allergens during childhood could actually make people more prone to autoimmune diseases and other health problems, rather than protecting them from illness. It was an important concept and one that has certainly proven its value, even if it isn’t a perfect theory. At its core, it still hits upon a critical issue: barring serious underlying issues, we need to be exposed to things like dust and danger, viruses, and bacteria – and our bodies are generally capable of dealing with those exposures.
Of course, now that we are in the midst of a global pandemic, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the 1918 flu, the hygiene hypothesis feels a little more questionable. Sure, some exposure may be necessary, but avoiding COVID-19 seems critical. Its death toll is too high and even those who survive often suffer lasting symptoms. It’s no surprise, then, that anyone who knows about the typically germ-filled state of gyms is in no hurry to head back. It just seems like too big of a risk for a workout.
Fitness Comes Home
While our understanding of COVID-19 has been slow, one thing we clearly understand at this point is that it’s transmitted via aerosolized droplets, which are produced when we breathe, cough or sneeze, or talk. It may also be transmitted via other bodily fluids and there is some possibility of surface transmission, though it is quite low compared to aerosol transmission.
This is what we know – now think about what happens in a gym. Even if everyone is quiet, if there are no instructors calling out activities or people chatting, there’s still plenty of heavy breathing as people work out, sending viral particles into the air and onto surfaces all around the gym. It’s enough to make people hesitant to return to the gym.
Yes, rather than renew their gym memberships, a growing number of fitness buffs are setting up home gyms. While those in larger homes are converting spare rooms or basements into full-fledged studio spaces, outfitted with large mirrors and the latest equipment, even those in cramped apartments have gotten creative, transforming bar carts into mobile fitness supply caddies. People who are determined to work out won’t be stopped by locked doors, and they’ve demonstrated the power of creativity.
Putting Safety First
Safety concerns surrounding gyms have been so serious, that in many areas they’ve been scheduled as among the last facilities to reopen. For example, New York City gyms have only just begun reopening, and only for solo activities after thorough inspection. That means no group classes; they also are not permitted to reopen their pools. Given that at least 74 people, and likely many more, contracted COVID-19 at a Canadian spin studio recently, these are necessary precautions, but they raise the question: what else should gym goers do to stay safe if they do want to go to their facility for a workout?
For those who are committed to getting back into their local gym, rather than streaming a workout at home or going for a run, experts recommend a number of precautions. First, skip the group classes. There’s a reason they aren’t being offered in New York City and why the outbreak in Canada took place in a group fitness facility. Second, when using equipment, wipe it down thoroughly before and after use, and be sure to use hand sanitizer. And finally, don’t skip the mask, even if your gym doesn’t require you to wear one. Masks do not impact oxygen levels in healthy individuals and as many as 25-50% of individuals with COVID-19 may be asymptomatic.
Going to the gym may not the most dangerous thing you can do, but if you can get a decent workout at home, it’s unlikely to be worth the risk. We’re already seeing an increase in cases as cold and flu season sets in, so reconsider your commitment to home fitness. Right now, that’s a far better way to stick with your fitness goals.