CDC warns that gyms are more dangerous than we thought

Well-publicized superspreader events at indoor gyms have made headlines. Is the gym a no-go zone?

By Nicole Karlis
February 27, 2021 4:59PM (UTC)
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Several young people running on treadmill in gym wearing face mask (Getty Images)

Is going to the gym safe during the COVID-19 pandemic? New research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) highlights how attending smaller sized fitness classes indoors is way riskier than most people think — especially if gym-goers aren't wearing masks while exercising.

One case study showed a Chicago resident attended an indoor exercise class while feeling sick. The resident later tested positive for the coronavirus. The gym quickly shut down, but 55 of the 81 people who attended the high-intensity classes eventually tested positive between  Aug. 24 and Sept. 1, 2020. Nobody died, but one person was hospitalized for eight days.

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The CDC estimates that 40 percent of people who got infected attended class on the day, or the day after, symptoms began. An estimated 76 percent of attendees wore masks infrequently. Gym members brought their own weights and mats to the classes, remained six feet apart, and were screened for symptoms before class, but not everyone wore a mask while exercising. People also attended the class, who were waiting for their COVID-19 test results and later tested positive.

"Most attendees did not wear a mask during exercise class; infrequent mask use when participating in indoor exercise classes likely contributed to transmission," the CDC stated in their report. "In addition, the potential for infected persons to infect others between their testing date and receipt of test results reinforces the need to quarantine while waiting for a COVID-19 test result and avoid gatherings while unknowingly infectious."

Experts say people should wait for the warmer weather to exercise outside.

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"If you can wait until the spring and work out outside, it will be a lot safer," Joshua Epstein, an epidemiology professor at NYU's School of Global Public Health, told The Washington Post. "We are not out of the woods by any means. It's not the time to relax."

Epstein added that this "high risk behavior" had predictable consequences.

"It's high respiration in a closed space," Epstein said. "Yes, people brought masks but evidently [a majority] said they wore them rarely, including some attendees with covid. Some were symptomatic and some knew that they were positive. All of those are very, very high-risk circumstances."

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In a separate CDC report, public health investigators linked 31 coronavirus infections to a fitness instructor in Honolulu who taught fitness classes at multiple facilities. According to the report, he taught an hour-long cycling class with 10 participants on June 29 — nobody wore a mask. All of the participants tested positive for the coronavirus in early July. The outbreak led to one person hospitalized in the intensive care unit. Honolulu passed emergency orders requiring face coverings in fitness centers, including while exercising. Before then, people could remove their masks while exercising.

Public health officials are warning that masks must be worn while exercising indoors, in addition to people staying home while ill or waiting for coronavirus test results.

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"To reduce SARS-CoV-2 transmission in fitness facilities, staff members and patrons should wear a mask, and facilities should enforce consistent and correct mask use (including during high-intensity activities) and physical distancing, improve ventilation, and remind patrons and staff members to stay home when ill," the CDC states. "Exercising outdoors or virtually could further reduce SARS-CoV-2 transmission risk."


Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a staff writer at Salon. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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