The safest ways to exercise during a pandemic

Is it worth it to go back to the gym?

Follow all of PopSci’s COVID-19 coverage here, including breakdowns of the safest schooling options, safest dining options, and a tutorial on safest long-distance travel options.

If you’re feeling a little more sluggish than usual after months upon months of working and socializing from home, you aren’t alone. With the options winnowed down to running outside, it can be especially tough to scrounge up fitness gear and get a jump start on your routine. But giving up on working out isn’t always the healthiest option, despite what’s going on in the world.

“It’s clear that exercise is important for our physical and emotional well being, and so to disregard any regimen in regard to COVID-19 is probably not the best risk benefit balance for us,” says Emily Sickbert-Bennett, a professor of infectious diseases at the UNC Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health.

In areas like New York City, gyms are finally starting open back up. And while the purr of the treadmill might sound tempting to you, there’s a lot to think about before breaking out your gym bag and unfreezing your membership. When it comes to exercising in public, it’s crucial to remember a few things, namely how close you are to other people and how well ventilated the space is.

Working out requires a lot of heavy breathing, says David Thomas, a professor of medicine and the director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, making it an especially risky activity that’s not so different from singing in a large group at church. But there are still ways to stay active without triggering a new string of COVID-19 cases. Here are a few options and the risks associated with them.

Pretty risky: gyms

If you cut away all the bells and whistles that a normal gym has, what you end up with is a room with lots of sweaty people exhaling hard. Pre-COVID, that could mean strangers crammed onto ellipticals side by side, sharing equipment, and chatting in the locker rooms. In other words, it’s a petri dish for viruses.

Of course, there are ways to mitigate this, Thomas says. Wiping down stations with alcohol wipes helps, and keeping gym-goers separated enough so they aren’t all huffing and puffing on each other lowers the chance of passing illnesses. But nothing is perfect, and many gyms, or businesses for that matter, don’t have ventilation systems that can filter out viral particles from large crowds. Not to mention, the likelihood that people can comfortably wear a mask while exercising heavily is pretty slim. Even protocols like temperature checks might not be able to detect infectious people as well as hoped.

If you must go to the gym, bring plenty of cleaning wipes with you to scrub down the equipment before and after you use it, Sickbert-Bennett says. Also be sure to wash your hands before and after working out, and if you need to touch your face midway through, soap up or sanitize your hands first. And if it’s even a remote possibility to mask up when you’re not doing aerobic exercises, consider bringing a pair along with you, in case you’d like to switch out of your dirty one before heading back out into the world.

May be risky: exercise classes

Like everything else, a pandemic-friendly workout class needs to have space between people and proper ventilation. But the bright side with classes is that you don’t have to pile people on top of one another like you might when there are only a few pieces of equipment in the gym, Thomas says. Another bonus: Some of your favorite class activities can be done with masks on.

Yoga, Thomas says, is a perfect example of this. You don’t need to be breathing super heavily to get the most out of your downward dog, so a mask isn’t out of the question. On top of that, the practice is pretty self-contained, and there’s less chance of crossing paths with a bunch of different folks throughout your workout. “’Those two things could shift yoga class into a very safe activity,” Thomas notes.

Even better, outdoor yoga on a beautiful morning can be one of the most fun (and well-ventilated) exercise routines out there.

But not all workouts that you do in a class setting are as safe. If you’re doing an intense Crossfit course that requires a lot of breathing, or a Zumba lesson that has you shaking and bumping into people, you’re putting yourself at risk, Thomas says. For now, those intense aerobics and dance moves are best kept in solo sessions.

Risky outside your bubble: outdoor sports

So, where does a friendly game of basketball or soccer squeeze into the exercise equation? If it’s outside and with your COVID-19 “bubble,” you’ve got little to worry about granted that everyone in your crew is being safe, Thomas says. If you know you and the select members of your entourage aren’t sick, then no matter how rough and tumble the game, you won’t be putting yourself at risk of catching the virus.

Where this gets tricky is when you play with strangers, either in the park or in an intramural league, Thomas says. Playing team sports means putting yourself in other people’s personal space. If even one player on the soccer field is infectious, Thomas estimates at least four or five of the individuals playing with them will catch the virus as well.

“With every additional person you’re exposed to, you’re increasing your risk level,” Sickbert-Bennett says.

In professional sports, testing is used to keep players safe, but obviously that’s not an option for just any athlete. So, play it on the safe side and only get sporty with your quaran-team, as tempting as it is to dive into a bigger game.

Little to no risk: solo exercising

It sounds silly, but coronavirus particles don’t just pop up out of nowhere. They don’t live inside your elliptical at home, and if you’re walking down the street alone, they won’t just infest your airways. For that reason, working out alone, be it outside or in the comfort of your own home, is pretty much risk-free, Thomas says.

If you’re going for a run or a bike ride, carry a mask in your pocket and avoid busy streets where passersby linger. And of course, don’t sign up for a marathon or other big event where you’d be bumping into other people who aren’t technically your workout buddies. Just stick to getting strong on your own for the time being.

In the future, there’ll probably be plenty of opportunities to breathe on each other again. But for right now, keeping your personal fitness extra personal is the way to go.

Sara Kiley Watson
Sara Kiley Watson

Sara Kiley Watson is an assistant editor at PopSci. Her work has also been featured in NPR and Business Insider. Contact the author here.