In May, gyms across Florida and Texas were allowed to reopen with limited capacity. But as we begin July, coronavirus cases are surging in both states, as they are across the South and the West. In the face of this potential disaster, some states are pausing their reopening plans or closing bars. But in Florida and Texas, as elsewhere, gyms remain open. In Arizona, where coronavirus cases are spiking, some owners of fitness centers even tried to defy the governor’s order to close down.
Until or unless we get this virus under control — which it most certainly isn’t now — “safe” reopening is never going to be completely safe. This seems especially true for businesses that push people together in enclosed spaces where they may be breathing heavily. The concern is highlighted by recent research in South Korea that linked coronavirus cases to dance workout classes.
“Safe” reopening is never going to be completely safe. This seems especially true for businesses that push people together in enclosed spaces.
“Based on recent research, aerosolized droplets can remain airborne for up to three hours, making the potential for spread in crowded and confined spaces such as fitness studios problematic,” Dr. Robert Glatter, an emergency medicine physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, told Healthline.
According to a recent Belgian and Dutch study, we may even need to socially distance as much as 15 feet while running, biking and walking.
So gyms simply can’t guarantee their members’ safety right now, which means they shouldn’t be reopening. It pains me to make that recommendation, because for more than 36 years, I have been a fitness enthusiast — and for more than a quarter of a century, I’ve worked as a professional in the field. The social butterfly that I am, combined with my love of fitness, naturally made the gym the perfect work environment for me. Every day was like the sitcom “Cheers” — everybody knew my name, and I knew theirs.
Yet, a lifetime of experience and observation leads me to believe that brick-and-mortar gyms are a potential heath threat (and, by the way, they always were), as well as a waste of time and money for most people.
Ironically, from a health perspective, your gym may be the worst place to work out. First of all, hot and sweaty environments like gyms are the perfect breeding ground for bacteria and fungi. Even before the coronavirus, most exercise enthusiasts were probably unaware of the shocking number of risks associated with using shared exercise equipment. According to a study by Fit Rated, an exercise equipment review company, gym weights have a whopping 362 times more germs than a toilet seat.
Overall, gyms are ripe for spreading conditions like athlete’s foot, jock itch, ringworm, warts, the common cold, flu, hepatitis, diarrhea and even MRSA.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the staph infection MRSA spreads easily in athletic facilities, locker rooms, gyms and health clubs because of shared equipment and skin-to skin contact.
Don’t even get me started on yoga mats. Yoga mats are generally made from porous materials that absorb sweat, among many other things. Yoga mats can harbor the same awful germs and viruses that I just mentioned above. And no, the gym isn’t usually sending anyone to thoroughly clean them between classes.
It’s common sense that the risk of contracting the coronavirus at the gym is potentially high. But there are plenty of other reasons Americans might want to start thinking about a post-gym world.
For one thing, your gym could be ripping you off. New York Sports Clubs had to be sued and publicly shamed before they agreed to refund members the money they took during the coronavirus closure.
But even in the best of times, getting out of gym memberships is often tricky.
They don’t care if you ever come to the gym; in fact, they’re counting on your not coming.
That’s because gyms are in the business of selling memberships, not fitness. They care only about your monthly electronic funds transfer. They don’t care if you ever come to the gym; in fact, they’re counting on your not coming. If everyone who had memberships went to their gyms, nobody would be able to work out.
Gyms are also typically not a safe space for a lot of people, especially larger bodies and Black bodies. Sadly, as in the larger society, fat-shaming is a part of the fitness culture. While my 30 years of experience in gyms is anecdotal, I have personally witnessed the stigmatization, unwelcome comments and judgments of larger bodies in the gym. People should be able to work out without being body-shamed, but according to the American Psychological Association, there is significant stigma among gym members whom society considers fat.
It is probably also unsurprising that racism at the gym is not uncommon. Just a month ago, a white venture capitalist, Tom Austin, threatened to call the police on a group of young Black businessmen working out in a shared office building gym. In a similar incident in 2018, a Black gym member and his guest were threatened with arrest at a New Jersey gym after an employee mistakenly accused them of not paying to get in.
With that having been said, the good news is you don’t need a gym to get a good workout — and you never did.
When friends and family and former and current clients ask me what they should do about their workouts during the pandemic, I recommend the following: buy portable gym equipment for your home, take mobile workout classes online and/or make use of the greater outdoors.
For those not interested in buying equipment, I recommend walking, jogging, running, jumping rope, climbing stairs (real steps), calisthenics, yoga, plyometrics. All provide butt-kicking workouts absolutely free.
I also believe everyone has enough space to carve out a fitness corner. Simple and inexpensive strength training equipment, like dumbbells, kettle bells, medicine balls and resistance bands, are great pieces to add intensity to your routine. No pricey Peloton or Bowflex required.
Exercise is a great tool for transformation, and now the coronavirus compels us all to transform our vision of what exercise looks and feels like. It remains to be seen whether brick-and-mortar gyms survive the pandemic, but our fitness doesn’t have to die with them.