Why It’s (Basically) Still Safe to Go To the Gym

There is a catch—and it’s called the Delta variant.

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There’s no getting around the fact that due to the extremely transmissible Delta variant of the coronavirus, COVID-19 cases are multiplying everywhere. For those in much less danger of getting sick—like the fully-vaxxed and those who have already had COVID—this brings to mind more everyday concerns.

First, it’s worth noting that the latest evidence from the CDC is that even those who’ve been vaccinated can transmit the virus despite having no symptoms. The Delta variant may not be more or less likely to escalate into a deadly health crisis, but it most definitely is easier for anyone to catch. 

Men’s Health magazine spoke to Virginia Tech professor of environmental and water sources engineering Linsey Marr, Ph.D. about just how COVID spreads in the gym. Turns out all that diligent wiping down any good gymgoer habitually performs after using equipment is great, but it may not mean much to the coronavirus:

From Men’s Health:

“For every droplet [containing the virus] there are hundreds more microscopic ones that are too small for us to see, and those remain floating in the air,” says Dr. Marr. “Even if you’re farther than six feet away, you can easily be exposed to viruses from someone who’s infected.” If this is compounded with a poor ventilation system in the gym, these viral particles can build up in the air like cigarette smoke in an enclosed room.

COVID, then, spreads pretty much like secondhand smoke. MH reports that Dr. Marr, however, has a positive caveat to add: She says the “chances of contracting Covid-19 from a gym setting as a vaccinated person is actually lower now than it was in 2020, since the absolute number of cases is lower now.” 

The Delta variant’s contagiousness does make it a wild card, however. 

But gains are gains, and you’ve been “jabbed” as the British say, and won’t be losing smell, taste, or lung power. What then?

Again, from Men’s Health:

So how do you decide if going to the gym is worth it if you’re vaccinated? According to experts, consider it on a case-by-case and even region-by-region basis.

High vaccinated areas with high exposure to the virus are less vulnerable, says [Emory University-based infectious disease expert] Dr. [Gavin] Harris, while low-vaccinated areas with high exposure are at higher risk. Overall, Dr. Harris believes gymgoers not only need to consider their own risk, but discuss it with their families as well, understanding that the risk that can be brought home.

Dr. Harris breaks it down by US regions, noting that residents “in a highly vaccinated area, like the Northeast” can pretty much feel confident “that most people there are vaccinated as well, compare to lower vaccinated areas like Oklahoma and Arkansas.” 

In the more thoroughly-vaxxed areas, even those who do get infected are simply safer overall.

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Regarding what might make the “safest gym situation” possible, the experts consulted by Men’s Health bluntly say it’s time to go back to home workouts for a while if absolute, total safety is a concern. 

For those who aren’t equipped for that, however, another option is to simply make sure there’s plenty of space at your facility. Small gyms with so-so ventilation are a bad situation when the virus spreads like smoke. In large gyms with high ceilings, it disperses much more easily. As Dr. Marr tells MH, “Big space is your friend.”

If gyms want to ensure their customers feel a relative sense of security, they need to have excellent ventilation and perhaps even require proof of vaccination. Failing that, gyms can choose to limit the number of people allowed inside at a given time. 

Generally speaking, you can keep going to the gym, but Emory’s Dr. Harris gave Men’s Health a checklist of questions to ask:

  • Is my gym or fitness center making things as low contact as possible?
  • Do they have an online reservation or check-in system?
  • Are they limiting the number of people who can workout at one time?
  • Do they have significant signage around masking if they can’t require vaccinations?
  • Do they have good ventilation? Sanitation times?

The takeaway is that it’s still safer than it was to head out to get pumped up, but it has to be done mindfully. 

And for the unvaccinated, the consensus reported from experts by MH is straightforward: stay the hell home. 

The changing nature of the virus means that the young and healthy can no longer feel confident in their ability to fight it off. As infectious disease expert Edgar Sanchez, M.D. tells the magazine, “With the Delta variant spreading disease to younger and younger folks, now is the time to get vaccinated. Being young is no longer necessarily guaranteeing that you won’t get severely ill.”

Get your strong on, but do it safely.