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Gyms are open, but are they safe in the age of COVID-19? Here's what you need to know

Gyms have reopened across most of Canada and that means membership fees have restarted. Many people now have to decide whether to return to the gym, or freeze or cancel their memberships and stick to home workouts.

Safety will be top of mind for most people weighing their options. Here’s what you should consider when deciding whether or not to return to the gym in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Are gyms safe?

While provinces have announced that gyms can reopen in almost all regions, each individual still needs to weight their own personal risks and benefits and decide for themselves, Dr. Samantha Hill, a cardiac surgeon and president of the Ontario Medical Association, told Healthing. The safety of a gym will depend on a number factors, including what steps the facility has taken to mitigate the risk and the number of active COVID-19 cases in the region.

“When I think about the gyms I’ve attended and gone to, the ventilation is never great. They’re always closed. They’re always underground. They rarely have windows. When I think about myself on a treadmill, I know I’m breathing heavy,” Hill said.

However, Dr. Nazeem Muhajarine, professor of community health and epidemiology at the University of Saskatchewan, told Healthing that it all comes down to a personal perception of risk. He said he has already returned to the gym. While heavy breathing comes with exercise, he said the risk depends on the space. “How big is the floor space? How high are the ceilings? What is the ventilation system? Are the doors open?”

What does the government say?

The federal government has published an online ranking of various activities according to their risk level. Gyms are considered “high risk” along with nightclubs, cruise ships, concerts and crowded public transportation, among other indoor activities. But, the government notes, risk levels can vary based on physical distancing and the use of face masks. “Risk level for exposure is impacted by closed spaces, prolonged exposure time, crowds, forceful exhalation,” the government website reads.

How can gyms reduce the risk?

High risk activities in areas with few to no cases will always be safer than the same activities in places experiencing outbreaks, so it’s important to know how your region is doing. When assessing the safety of a fitness facility, look for: equipment that is two metres apart to maintain social distance; hand sanitizer stations; regular cleaning; and good ventilation, including high ceilings. You should also make sure the facility is following the limits on indoor gatherings set by each province.

One thing you don’t want to see: fans. They just blow potentially contaminated air around and negate any benefits of social distancing.

What can individuals do to reduce the risk?

Everyone can do their part to stay two metres away from other people and wash or sanitize their hands regularly. You should also avoid touching your face, nose and mouth and stay home if you have any symptoms. While some gyms have opened change rooms and continue to provide access to water fountains, it is better to shower and change at home and to bring a full water bottle for your workout. It’s also a good idea to limit the length of your workout as risk of exposure increases over time spent indoors with other people. Some gyms have already limited workouts to 60 or 90 minutes. You can also visit the gym during off-peak times.

Dr. Chris Hicks, an emergency room physician and partner in Advanced Performance Healthcare Design who helped GoodLife Fitness create a reopening plan, said educating gym users about working out responsibly will be an important part of operating during the pandemic.

“By coming to a gym, you’re accepting the responsibility not only for yourself, but for the protection of others,” said Hicks, adding that gyms can make an effort to subtly “nudge” users towards following safety precautions. “One of the things we found out was if you simply put a handwashing station in the path of the user instead of off to the side, people are much more inclined to use it.”

What about masks?

In most regions, staff are required to wear masks, but they are not required while working out. In Alberta, Nova Scotia and Ontario, masks must be worn in between workouts and when entering and exiting the gym. In Saskatchewan, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick, Manitoba and British Columbia masks are not required at fitness facilities. However, if you feel more comfortable in a mask, there is no harm in wearing one. Just start with a low intensity workout and see how you feel. You should be able to breathe comfortably. The standard rules for mask usage also apply: the mask should cover your nose and mouth, and if you touch the mask, wash your hands immediately. While non-medical masks do not provide the perfect seal necessary to keep the coronavirus out, they can still help reduce the spread of COVID-19, especially by asymptomatic carriers.

Have there been outbreaks?

Gyms have been open for months in some provinces, including Alberta, but, according to news reports, there has only been one outbreak linked to a fitness facility. At the end of July, a Calgary cycle studio became the epicentre of a COVID-19 outbreak. RIDE Cycle Calgary was linked to at least 42 cases, but Alberta Health Services have received at least three complaints about how that studio managed its classes. Bikes were reportedly too close together, trainers didn’t wear masks and multiple fans were used.

National Post, with files from The Canadian Press and Postmedia

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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