Gyms are reopening – how safe is it to use them during the pandemic?

Good ventilation is key to gym safety, say experts

A customer sanitises the surface of an aerobic training machine at a gym in Milan, Italy. Gyms in Ireland reopen on Monday as Covid restrictions are eased. Photograph: Daniel dal Zennaro/ EPA

A customer sanitises the surface of an aerobic training machine at a gym in Milan, Italy. Gyms in Ireland reopen on Monday as Covid restrictions are eased. Photograph: Daniel dal Zennaro/ EPA

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After months of walking the same 5km route and joining online fitness sessions from home, many are eager to return to gyms this week as restrictions are eased.

Which raises the question: How safe is it to work out in a gym during the Covid pandemic?

Due to the risk of virus transmission being higher indoors, one of the greatest concerns experts have is the level of ventilation inside gyms.

Orla Hegarty, a member of the expert advisory group on ventilation and an academic at UCD, said most transmission was from inhaling infected air, the likelihood of which was much higher when people were exercising in poorly ventilated spaces.

“Outdoors, the virus is diluted and blown away. However, in buildings it can linger in the air. As people are breathing faster and more deeply while they exercise, an infected person will breathe a lot more of the virus into the air, and others will breathe more of it in,” she said.

This is why it’s so important gyms pay close attention to their ventilation levels. Opening windows and doors to allow breeze to blow through was important to lower the risk of transmission, Ms Hegarty said.

For large, purpose-built gyms with ventilation systems, this task is easier. However, adequate ventilation can be difficult for gyms in basements or with low ceilings, so close attention to the spacing of equipment to enable social distancing is even more important in those environments.

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According to Ms Hegarty, while it is understandable people are excited to return to gyms, it may be necessary to “get imaginative” while the pandemic is still ongoing and variants are spreading. Gyms could “make use of multi-storey car parks, most of which are empty currently”, to move gym equipment and make use of the open air.

Occupancy levels were also very important, said John Wegner, professor of chemistry at University College Cork (UCC).

Outbreaks in gyms have nearly always been linked to indoor classes, and this was the case with the widely publicised outbreak in Quebec a couple of months ago that led to more than 400 infections in the community. “That was a class indoors with no ventilation which is a recipe for a superspreading event. That’s the last thing we want with new variants too. So individual training is best for the moment,” Prof Wegner said.

Online booking

Flyefit, which operates a number of gyms around Dublin, are implementing an online booking system to control the number of people using the gym at any one time, alongside a traffic light system to allow members to see in advance of arrival how busy their gym is predicted to be.

A spokesman for Flyefit said as the gyms were relatively large, at more than 25,000sq ft typically, they were quite well ventilated and equipment had been spaced out for physical distancing.

Some gyms are closing their shower rooms and allowing access only to the lockers and toilet facilities outside of the gym; others have even taken to moving spin bikes and weights outdoors.

Alongside mask usage where possible and good physical distancing, cleaning and disinfection was also important, but Prof Wegner said “excessive cleaning isn’t necessary” because the virus was airborne.

Ultimately, ventilation is key. “Providing fresh air flushes out the virus. Gyms need to be working flat out to ensure this is happening,” he said. One way businesses could do this is by using a carbon dioxide monitor as CO2 is an indication of the freshness of the air.

Gym members should conduct their own assessments by calling their gym prior to attending to ask about their safety measures and whether they check the air quality. While at the gym, “check if the air feels stale or smells. That probably means there’s not good enough ventilation, especially in Covid times. That to me is a sign not to go there,” Prof Wegner said.

For large, purpose-built gyms like Flyefit, which have ventilation systems in place, this is an easier task. But for gyms struggling to get good ventilation, Prof Wegner recommended the use of air cleaners as a short-term measure. Air cleaners take in air and filter out virus-containing particles with high efficiency.

These are better used in more confined spaces, but businesses could place a number of them around the room. “Fresh air is your best friend in this pandemic,” Prof Wegner said.

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