Dear Mark: My Gym is Open, Is It Safe to Go?

is it safe to go to the gymAcross much of the world, movement restrictions are lifting, businesses are reopening, and gyms are coming back. While the next few weeks may paint a different picture, and cases are going up in many areas, many places now are seeing better overall trajectories. Deaths are down, which could be a lagging indicator and thus subject to a potential skyrocket. But for now, for better or worse, the gyms are opening.

Does that mean you should go?

My gym is open. Is it safe to go back?

Hi Mark,

I haven’t been able to get into the gym for several months now. But I just got an email and starting next week, they’re open for business. My question is should I go? Is it safe? What do you recommend?

I’ve really missed the workouts but I also don’t want to get sick.

Now, your regional COVID situation matters. If this is Hawaii and the case count is 1030 with just a few cases being added every day, you’re probably safe going to the gym. If you’re in New York with cases in the hundreds of thousands, the gym might pose more danger. So do your due diligence there. That’s going to vary for everyone.

Let’s say you decide you want to go back. All else being equal, how can you determine if it’s safe to do so? What should you expect from your gym proprietor? What steps can you take to reduce your chances of getting the virus at the gym?

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I looked at the actual research into the interactions between gym safety and the coronavirus. I also asked my friend, Thom Downing, who owns the Focused Individualized Trainers facility in Los Altos, CA, for some tips. He’s been closed down for over three months now, and he’s figured out how to keep his coaches paid and his clients fit and healthy by expanding their offerings to include at-home sessions, virtual training, online tutorials, Zoom boot-camps, and even virtual PE classes for kids. He loaned out most of the gym’s equipment to local clients so they can continue their work at home. Plus, he’s been making modifications to the facility so that when he does open back up, his gym will be as safe as possible.

So, what are some things to consider?

I’m offering you a few things to think about. These measures will by no means keep you 100% virus-free. These are simply things to think about as you assess what risk level you are comfortable with.

Wait a Month to See How Things Shake Out

A month is a good period of time to see a trend emerge. If people return and transmission starts happening, you’ll know a month in. Any place of business will (or should) disclose positive COVID19 transmission.

Use Outdoor Equipment

There are many reasons to train outside. Sunlight is a powerful deactivator of the virus and increases your vitamin D production. Having an entire open atmosphere surrounding you instead of a cloistered indoor space provides plenty of room for the exhaled air to disperse and dilute.

This isn’t possible everywhere. Your average big box facility probably won’t let you take weights outside, but the smaller, more mom-and-pop gyms likely will. Ask nicely.

Consider Switching to a Personal Training-style Gym

Smaller, more personal gyms will be your best bet. The user count will be lower. You’ll be familiar with more of the people there. You can avoid people if you need to. People will be doing their own thing, usually with a trainer, and the trainers will all be keeping their clients at a safe distance from other clients because it’s mandated (and correct). It has structure, in other words, and that’s what you need right now.

A big box gym is impersonal, unwieldy. There’s so much going on and so many people you can’t possibly account for. This pushes up the risk of transmission.

Ensure There’s Good Ventilation

A study from 2018 found that the risk of influenza transmission at the gym increased with higher occupancy and higher CO2 levels.1 You could ask your gym to monitor CO2 levels, as those are great barometers for ventilation. Higher CO2 means less ventilation and more shared air. Lower CO2 means higher ventilation, less shared air, and lower risk. Inhaled air is about 0.003% CO2; exhaled air is 4-6% CO2.

That said, “lower risk” doesn’t mean no risk. The same study found that influenza transmission risk remained fairly elevated even with low occupancy and lower CO2 levels. Gyms are just a great vector for a virus like influenza. All that fluid, all that exhalation, all that intensity, all that proximity. COVID19 isn’t influenza, but the two viruses spread through similar mediums: droplets expelled from the nose and mouth.

Fans Over Air Conditioners

Gyms love to pump up the air conditioning. This is helpful when it’s hot out. Safer, even. No one should overheat when training. But when the A.C. is on, the windows are usually closed, and these days, you want good air flow. You don’t want to breathe in the same air everyone else just exhaled.

Favor gyms that have huge industrial fans, open doors and windows, and tons of circulation.

Mask Considerations

The official recommendation is to wear a cloth face covering when you’re around people,2 and masks will likely be required for indoor gyms. At first glance, that seems like it would be uncomfortable, particularly if you’re wearing a legitimate N95 mask. Those things are hard to breathe in.

But researchers have actually looked at this.3 They placed pregnant healthcare workers into N95 masks and had them exercise. They exhaled less oxygen and more carbon dioxide, but that was the extent of the changes. The fetal heartbeats were normal. Blood oxygen saturation didn’t change. Nor did rate of perceived exertion. Overall, it “impose[d] an additional workload on the metabolic system,” which could be good or bad depending on your stress tolerance and goals.

In athletes, wearing a similar mask during weight lifting didn’t affect performance, but it did affect focus, alertness, and peak velocity. A few people got dizzy. All in all, they were okay though.4

Then again, another study found that lifters wearing a mask completed fewer repetitions.5

Slow-flow N95s aren’t required, though. The recommendations only specify that face coverings should be cloth, and mask requirements have been around long enough that there are now infinite styles and materials to choose from. There are lots of masks that are comfortable enough for workouts, and made of breathable material that won’t restrict airflow much.

Oxygenation probably won’t be a problem, but just in case, keep things brief. Don’t go too hard for too long. Don’t be a hero. No PRs.

Use the Sauna and Steam Room

The virus hates heat and humidity and initially infects the throat and nasal passage before eventually replicating enough to make it to the lungs. If that’s true, and you can breathe in enough 135 degree sauna air through both nose and mouth, you may be able to reduce the activity of the virus.

That’s very speculative, however, and there are many reasons to think it’s probably not enough.

  1. By the time the air gets into your throat and nose, it’s already cooled off.
  2. The heat exposure isn’t consistent. Breathing in means a second or two of sufficient heat exposure (assuming the air remains hot enough). Then you’re breathing cooler air out. Then you breathe in again. You’re not holding the temperature at a consistent 135 degrees for the 15 minutes it takes to really reduce activity.
  3. The original SARS coronavirus from the 2000s is sensitive to 135 degrees. We don’t know for sure if this latest one has the same sensitivity.

At the most, the sauna might help. At the least, it won’t hurt. And sauna is good for other things, anyway.

Dose With Zinc Lozenges After You Train

There’s a certain kind of zinc acetate lozenge that has a strong local effect on zinc concentrations in the throat and nasal tissues. You start feeling a cold come on, you let one of those zinc acetate lozenges dissolve in your mouth, and it actually reduces the duration of the cold. No chewing. It takes around half an hour to fully dissolve, but it actually helps.

These might help against the coronavirus, which also gains entry via the throat and nasal passage and is vulnerable to zinc.

Consider a Povidone-iodine Gargle Before and After the Gym

Recent in vitro evidence shows that a 0.5% solution of povidone-iodine (an antiseptic often used in veterinary care) deactivates the coronavirus in 15 seconds.6 This is coronavirus on a surface, not in your body, but the virus initially spends time on the surface of your nasal membranes and throat before gaining entry and proliferating. There could be a window of opportunity between when the virus is transmitted to you and when you “have” it—and the povidone-iodine wash might kill some or all of the virus before it gets into you.

Simply get a 10% solution online or at a drug or pet store and dilute it to 0.5%.

If it doesn’t help, you’re not in any danger. 0.5% povidone-iodine is safe for gargling and nasal swabbing. Just don’t swallow it.

Keep Your Distance

Six feet is the prescribed distance. If you’re indoors and training, I’d bump that up even higher to 12-15 feet. You’re breathing hard. The other people are breathing hard. Everyone’s sweating, grunting, spittle flying.

Wipe Down Equipment Before and After You Use It

I don’t mean the old “wipe it with a sweaty towel.” I mean bring a cleaning agent that’s been shown to kill, or use disinfectant wipes (either bleach or ethanol-based). Very likely the gym will provide these; if not, provide your own.

Go During Off Hours

The more people in the gym, the greater the risk of transmission. Every gym has peak hours. Avoid those.

Find a Gym That’s Doing Everything Right

I’ll tell you what Thom is doing because it’s a very strong model.

No cardio equipment—too hard to clean.

Start every session on the hour. This makes it easier to do a deep clean every hour and keep people organized and safely distancing.

Disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer stations all over. Hospital grade.

UV-C (shown to kill coronavirus) lighting in the air ducts.

Ionizers installed that attach water molecules to particles in the air, making them big enough for filters to catch.

Upgraded, more capable filters changed more frequently (once a month versus twice a year).

Open doors, big fans.

Do as much as possible outside in the sun.

Masks required in common areas.

Constant updates and communication with clients. Taking no chances.

Considering povidone-iodine washes available and zinc lozenges for sale, depending on logistics and whether more research emerges. This one’s pending.

Anyway, that’s what I’d recommend looking into. Regardless of how worried you are or not about the virus, these tips will help ensure you’re safe without negatively impacting your training experience.

What do you think about returning to the gym? What precautions will you take? What modifications, if any, will you make to your former routine and approach?

Let me know down below!

TAGS:  fitness

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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41 thoughts on “Dear Mark: My Gym is Open, Is It Safe to Go?”

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  1. We have a small but staffed fitness center in our apartment complex that has just reopened. You must have an appointment to work out. Everyone must wear a mask. Every other machine is covered to maintain distance. Every machine is wiped down between uses and all touch points are covered with plastic wrap that is changed between users. I feel safe going there.

  2. In Oregon, masks are required in all gyms unless you are doing “strenuous physical activity”. In practice, people wear masks when they walk in the door and remove them as soon as they get past the desk. The staff cleans more often, every other machine is roped off, and they have towels and sanitizer (which they always had).

    After months of being locked inside I am glad to be back in the gym. I’m back to 3-4 days a week, my cardio is almost back, and I’m putting on muscle.

    1. When Equinox opened I went right away. When the open back up again I will be right there. I took all the precautions they told me to, i cleaned all machines before and after.
      You’re either going to get it or you are not! If you do get it you’re either going to get sick or not! If you get sick you’re either going to die or live. Just like with everything else in life
      I still dont know anyome who has had it. In Los Angeles the chances of running into someone with it is about 0.0165. Really it is half that. LA County does not show recoverd. So that is if all 165000 are still contagious. They are not.
      Be carefull and live your life

  3. I’d say suck it up and don’t go. I mean clearly unless like Mark’s example with only a few cases per day in Hawaii. It isn’t worth it, and even if you’re doing all these things to minimize your risk, it seems irresponsible to go for the sake of other’s risks. Also, if they’re really doing it right with hospital-like sanitation and changing plastic wrap after each use as the person above stated, that’s insanely wasteful and harmful to the planet. I understand these people who own the gyms are trying to make money again, I get that. I just think the general public needs to be patient and wait until things are safer. Seriously people are ridiculous when it comes to wearing masks and probably 70% of the people I see wear them improperly and/or wait until right when they step in a store to put them on and take them off before even walking out. Why is it so hard to just wait til they get to their cars to take them off? And put them on before leaving their car. I don’t understand. Even if a gym had these rules people won’t follow them well most likely.

  4. We actually have a statewide mask mandate here in NC. I went to the pawn shop the other day, waited in the car. There was a sign on the door saying you must cover your nose and mouth at all times. Saw three people walk in and out with no mask. My partner who went in said none of the employees were wearing any and told him he didn’t have to wear his. This is ridiculous and unacceptable to me. Makes me love places like Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and my local co-op even more, who have been doing these things since long before it was mandated.

    1. Go to the gym? No way. I’ve been following the story of actor Nick Cordero, age 41, who contracted Covid19 and went through absolute hell before he passed away a few days ago. Maybe an unusual case, being that he was fairly young and healthy. But enough people have died from this thing that I’m pretty careful about where I go and what I do. It’s just not worth the risk, not for me or my family.

      1. That is an unusual case. In fact, the chances of young, healthy people dying of COVID-19 are 0.04%, or far less than the average person’s risk of dying from the seasonal flu.

        People have become obsessed with “safety.” There’s no such thing. Life is one big fat risk from the day we’re born to the day we bite the dust. You can hide in your house to try to mitigate that risk, or you can get out and live your life. Tough words, maybe, but I’m getting a little tired of all the handwringing.

        1. Pragmatic, I totally agree with you. This is ridiculous. We shoulld hide out forever because the risk of dying from the flu is the same or less (if you’re under 70 without comorbidities). So why not reduce the speed limit to 4 mph because gosh, if it could save one life it would be worth it. Read Vital Lies and Simple Truths.

          1. Sure. Who cares about your parents, grandparents, random folks on the street that are immunocompromised.

            Don’t forget. It’s not all about you.

        2. Generally, that’s true. But why apply broad, long-term thinking to a relatively short term problem that has a straightforward solution (just exercise outdoors or at home)? The sooner people get this, the sooner things can move toward “normal” again.
          Besides, can’t at least 3 of the 4 primal movements be done pretty much anywhere, by almost anyone (push-ups, pull ups, squats, and planks)?

  5. One of the best things for me personally to come out of COVID has been exploring other ways to move my body. I have worked in the fitness industry for over a decade and it has been so great to get out of the gym.
    I have falling in love with yoga, I am an avid walker and hiker but am doing even more, and I have become a huge fan of the micro-workouts.

    3x a week I usually try to do 10-15 different exercises by the end of the day. Nothing fancy but I would argue I am in better shape now than I have ever been.

    I do miss the social aspect of the gym but I am finding ways to replace it.

    So I honestly am not sure if I will ever go back to working out in the gym.

  6. I am in CT, which is doing very well, Corona-wise. My gym has spaced out or blocked off the machines so users maintain distance. And there is additional disinfection going on. There are relatively few people there, at least in the afternoon when I go. Everybody is masked (and most are wearing their masks properly!).

  7. I live in Oregon where the gyms have re-opened a few weeks ago, but my gym went out of business during the shutdown! A new gym is opening a few blocks from my house, and I can’t wait to get back to the treadmill! That said, I’ve worked throughout this pandemic as a front lines/essential worker and no one has been sick this entire time until two weeks ago when we had one case; but no one else has gotten sick.
    I’m not going to worry to the point of not living my life! Wipe the Machine down before and after and go to the gym to get my exercise when I need to! (It rains a lot here in Oregon) I do love running outside in the sunshine where my skin can soak up vitamin D.

    1. I am also in OR, but I hate the sun (or the sun hates me). I go to 24-Hour Fitness while they are still in business.

  8. I am surprised at the tone of this article. I have been going to my gym for months, no masks. Wipe down equipment before and after.

    Cases are up because of so much testing, false positives and each new positive is a new case, even if it is for a person who previously tested positive.

    I thought this community was healthily skeptical (pun intended) as to the conventional thinking and aware that the authorities are not always right or even honest.

    So sad to see this.

    1. My nephew who is 29 years old, is a personal trainer and a top competitor in iron man races and now can barely walk up a small flight of stairs before becoming shaky and out of breath 9 weeks after spending 2 weeks on a ventilator with covid-19. Not something to take lightly. Good luck but even if you feel you are safe please be considerate of all the front line workers who are putting their lives on the line to serve us and for those who may need the extra consideration and concern
      of healthier citizens.

    2. There are many in this community that agree with you and haven’t forgotten their common sense. You are not alone.

  9. I can’t believe you are buying into this scamdemic The deaths are overstated by at least 50%. The definition of COVID19 death “regardless of what you died from if you had COVID19 in you it’s a COVID19 death”. This is nothing more than a normal flu season with a new strain. More are dying from the regular flu each day with vaccines than from COVID19.

    1. Ken, sadly, it’s people with your attitude that are going to prolong our country’s recovery.

    2. Completely untrue. Many, many more dying of COVID. Yes, we know government nutrition recommendations are dubious and we know to do our research on it to find the truth — but have you done your research here? Germs are real, even if you can’t see them, check PubMed on that. My uncle’s cousin in TX didn’t think the virus was anything to worry about …. RIP Rick.

  10. well I know the pandemic has given me the incentive
    to purchase some really great exercise equipment at excellent prices. So, even though I live in a small apartment
    and don’t have a job or a lot of extra money, I can forego the scary trip to the gym. I have found that I like my treadmill and recumbent bike better than the ones at the gym anyway.
    Add in my husband’s weight set, and I probably won’t ever go back.

  11. There certainly are safer gyms out there, but for me not yet safe enough. I can remember too many times when I was around someone coughing or sneezing in a workout area or class, and then a few days later was coughing or sneezing myself.
    There’s just so much that I can do on my own without taking the gym risk.
    I do miss the steam room and sauna, but this too will eventually pass.

  12. Even here in Western Australia, with no COVID community transmission, I would not go to a gym now even if you paid me – the virus is in the country and there is a big outbreak over east. It only takes one person with early stages coronavirus to pass it on and cause a new cluster of cases?
    It’s not worth it. Get a rebounder or trampoline.

  13. Hi Mark- our community fitness center opened late May. In the cardio area, every other machine is taped off. I’ve been going 4x a week. It hasn’t been crowded and no masks are required. No reported virus positives by residents using the facility. It’s a 55 & over community and I’m 69. I feel staying fit keeps your immune system strong.

  14. I’m not a gym user, preferring to exercise at home and have more time for other activity (including some physically strenuous ones like building a tree house for my granddaughter). But my wife has been for some time and has enjoyed fitness classes before the pandemic hit. I was intrigued by the sauna discussion, but I don’t see what “breathe in enough 135 degree sauna air” has to do with virus viability. Isn’t a virus done in by being subjected to that environment before being inhaled?

  15. Never been a huge fan of gyms, prefer competitive sports but just the idea of all the heavy breathing and sweating people working out in a room together is a turn off for me. So many other options especially during the summer, I’d take a pass on the gym.

  16. I burned myself out working out at home while our gyms were closed. I use heavy weights and nothing I did at home held a candle to what I am able to do at the gym. We live in a small apartment w/o additional space so there are real limitations here. We also don’t have a yard. I am heat intolerant (MS) so going outside in the summer is not the best idea for me (again, nothing to do outside anyway). I have bad knees so I can’t run much. I’ve been going to the gym since they reopened recently and stay as careful as I can.

  17. I’m 66 and have been going to the 24 Hour gym here in the San Fransisco Bay Area, CA since June 11th, 3-4x a week. You make an appointment on their app 2 days prior and get 1 hour. People have to wear masks and it’s busy. No issues that I have heard of or seen. Nobody really using the locker room or shower that I have seen.

    1. Here in the UK gyms are begining to open up this weekend. There are plenty of distancing and cleaning measures being put in place, pools are going to be open but not saunas and steam rooms yet. No mention of masks so far. We’ll be heading back next week for a session and will be interested to see what numbers are like.

    2. just keep your immune system up and do the research. Its 9 times less deadlier than the flu. All the death totals are from every death accumulated from every disease, accident, suicide, overdose ,gun shot, etc. to keep the numbers and scare tactics high. Do the research on masks also. They create a acidic environment in your body, lower immune system, lower oxygen into your body that’s causing the dizziness, vomiting, etc. If 6 feet apart works, no need for a mask. If a mask works, why 6 feet apart. Doesn’t make sense. A true pandemic would have everything shut down…PERIOD. And now 6 months after mandating masks…REDICULOUS. Do your research and stop being a submissive sheep waiting for your vaccine that will cause a lifelong journey of real health issues. WAKE UP

  18. My gym has just opened. I will pay the monthly subscription, to support the industry, but will not be going. A local forest has become my new gym, and while the weather holds out, suits me fine.

    1. I have been using gyms extensively before covid; love all options that they offer. Now days I replaced my passion for exercising with other forms..playing pickle ball, using my home assortment of DB’s, rings, elastic bands, etc., mountain biking, running, walking…I can’t get enough of it. The fact is, the virus is here, flare ups will occur. I’m 61, healthy, never sick…but I live around older people (in-laws), my wife has asthma conditions. No gym time for me this time.

  19. I go to an indoor pool. Any thoughts. We are a small pool si limited to 9 members at a time and a new “air scrubber in the pool room.

  20. Working from home has been great, every morning I’m out early to beat the heat and get some sunshine and a workout on nearby steps and trails.
    The gym is full of young bucks whose brains can’t properly calculate risk and thus don’t have consideration for others – even if they wore masks at the gym (they don’t) it’s about what they’re doing/who they’re around when they’re not at the gym. Not a risk I’m willing to take.

  21. Hi Mark,
    I appreciate your article on Gyms. I re-started going to a big box gym last week and I’m pretty nervous about it. I know they’re under financial pressure due to loss of members who’re not returning after the pause, but they don’t seem to be researching solutions and ways to reduce exposure. I’m just an average guy, but even I have the ability to search under terms like “ways to kill viruses”. UV lighting in AC return ducts is an immediate topic when you search, but when I ask my gym about whether they’re planning to install them in their HVAC, they just say it’s all about money (lack of, I suppose). Doesn’t it seem foolish to be so short term about investment in their members’ safety? I’m installing a system in my home, for my health AND my bnb guests who inhabit my basement apartment. The lights aren’t really much $$, like between $200 and $500, depending on what you want. Our HVAC is completely shut down until then since it mixes air from both levels in the home when it’s running. We got a window air for upstairs, and here in SD the basement stays about 69 degrees, so very comfy even on 100 degree days outside. I blocked off all the returns and vents in the basement so nothing could circulate, even passively. But now I’m in a big box gym and feeling completely vulnerable. I need my workouts for my health (I’m 65), but, like Clint Eastwood said in one of his Dirty Harry movies, ” Dyin’ ain’t much of a livin’, boy”. What to do…… that’s the question. Oh, and by the way, my compliments on your recipes in your “Primal Blueprint” cookbook. We have yet to find a recipe that isn’t fantastic, and we’ve been using it for YEARS !! Thx again, Mark, for leading the way on Primal and Keto lifestyles.

  22. First of all thanks Mark for the article and the many perspectives from others. I live in Abuja, Nigeria and am a Physical Education teacher at an international school. When our school closed down in March I was one of the 10 teachers that decided to stay ( teachers have housing on campus). I knew that I could use the 25m pool, the track and our well equipped weight room. I feel I am very fortunate to have these options. Once the lockdown here in Abuja relaxed a little it provided me the opportunity to go off campus to walk- (I have a knee injury, so not running). I appreciate being outside everyday and love when the sun is out. The virus is real, and it is much worse than SARS which I lived through in Taiwan when I taught there. People in Nigeria are not taking it seriously, and there is an attitude that God will save them, or the government is making things up. If I was back in the U.S. it would either be Hawaii or Arizona, and would not go to a gym. There is so much each of us can do for our fitness- no weights? Use your body weight. Don’t like the sun- get up early and workout or in the early evening. Not a runner? Walk, go for a hike! Have a bicycle, get on it and do a ride. All this may sound like I am a fanatic on fitness, I am. It will be the saving grace for everyone, but everyone has to do their part and be responsible when outside of their home.