Pre-COVID, maybe you frequented a hot yoga class that involved purposeful heavy breathing in a crowded room filled with heavy, recirculating air. Or maybe you went to a packed bootcamp class and shared sweaty weights, mats, and treadmills with your classmates without a second thought.
Wow, that’s clearly in the past.
These days, anything you do that’s even in the vicinity of another person can feel like a gamble. But the urge to get back to a regular workout routine is real, and for many of us, bicep curls, burpees, and barre pulses just aren’t the same when you have to go it alone. Group fitness is uniquely motivating and effective, thanks to group energy and instructor corrections and encouragement.
It’s also uniquely dangerous—compared to home workouts or going to the gym solo—during a global pandemic.
So, will it ever be safe to support your favorite studio and go to a workout class again? Here’s what you need to know.
Consider the Type of Workout and Class Size
In the early days of the pandemic, researchers traced more than 100 coronavirus cases to Zumba classes in South Korea. Part of the problem, they observed, was that Zumba involves lots of heavy breathing in crowded spaces, and COVID-19 primarily spreads through respiratory droplets. “Characteristics that might have led to transmission from the instructors in Cheonan include large class sizes, small spaces, and intensity of the workouts. The moist, warm atmosphere in a sports facility coupled with turbulent air flow generated by intense physical exercise can cause more dense transmission of isolated droplets,” the researchers wrote.
Interestingly, the cases were all traced to classes that had between 5 and 22 participants; classes that had fewer than 5 people in them did not result in any new infections. Another important observation was that an instructor who taught Pilates and yoga classes of 7-8 students did not have any new infections in her classes. “We hypothesize that the lower intensity of Pilates and yoga did not cause the same transmission effects as those of the more intense fitness dance classes,” the researchers wrote.
In other words, while there are still risks, the risk of contracting coronavirus may be lower in smaller classes and when the workout is less cardio-intensive.
Indoor vs. Outdoor Exercise
By now, you’ve probably heard doing almost anything outside is better than doing it inside when it comes to contracting coronavirus. (Hello, outdoor dining.) That rule applies to exercise, too.
“We have very little evidence of outdoor transmission. It’s not zero — there are definitely cases reported — but it’s much, much lower than inside,” one infectious-disease physician told The Washington Post. Many factors like sunlight, wind, and humidity affect how transmissible the virus is.
But experts still recommend staying at least six feet away from people when you’re exercising outside and wearing a mask.
In New York City, workout studios all over the five boroughs have started to move classes outside, with Mile High Run Club offering outdoor group runs in Manhattan and The Fit In Bed-Stuy offering strength sessions in Brooklyn parks. Which brings us to…
What Precautions Are Being Taken?
If you do decide there’s a class you feel safe enough to attend or you choose to go back to the treadmill and weight rack at the gym, make sure you evaluate the facilities’ COVID precautions, first.
Inside at a gym or a studio, experts say you should see evidence of routine cleaning and disinfecting of machines, physical distancing should be enforced (you may even consider stretching it to twelve feet if cardio is involved), and staff should be wearing masks. And make sure you’re doing extra due diligence cleaning shared equipment before touching it. Air flow is also incredibly important—the bigger the space is, the better, since more space will dilute concentration of the virus in the air. If your gym has open windows, even better! Outdoor air circulating in is a major win (maybe not for your sweat situation during summer, but hey, priorities). The safest bet is to wear a mask, although it can be difficult depending on the type of exercise.
Outside, distancing is, again, the most important element. It’s going to feel exciting to be back among fitness friends, but the fact is, you’ve got to stay as far away as possible.
And hey, the good news is that while it’s impossible to eliminate all risk from group fitness classes, so many of your favorite studios are now offering online classes, from CorePower Yoga and 305 Fitness to guided audio runs from Mile High. Even studios you wouldn’t think would be able to make their workouts virtual have, like SLT, Swerve (you can rent a bike!), and CityRow (after you invest in an at-home rower). You can do almost anything you did in person at home, minus giving your sweaty workout neighbor a high five at the end of class.
—Written by Lisa Held