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The Stress—and Stress Relief—of the Gym During Coronavirus

The gym, an escape and haven in the day-to-day lives of millions, has become yet another source of anxiety in the age of coronavirus.

As cases of Covid-19 rise in the U.S., health officials are urging people to practice social distancing. That could make spin classes and yoga sessions seem more harmful than healthy. Yet many fitness fanatics crave exercise more than ever and are forging forward, while taking precautions.

Tony Maloney, the fitness center manager at National Institute for Fitness and Sport in Indianapolis, points out that people should be exercising now more than ever. “When endorphin levels go up, it can counteract the stress response that is so damaging to the immune system,” he says. “Exercise also improves mental health. When you’re feeling down or stressed, exercise can put a smile on your face.”

Madison Mitteness still braves the treadmill at her gym in New York City, but says she won’t touch the dumbbells or weight machines for fear of germs. Her logic, that the more people touch shared objects, the higher their risk of transmitting a virus, isn’t unfounded.

But according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, coronavirus spreads more easily between people standing within about 6 feet than through contact with contaminated surfaces. Cleaning and disinfecting surfaces appears to lower the chances of transmission.

 

Gregory Poland, director of the Vaccine Research Group at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., says the gym isn’t necessarily riskier than any other communal area, but people should remain vigilant. His tactic at the gym has been to use hand sanitizer—at least 60% alcohol-based—liberally every time he touches a piece of equipment. In general, things like gym towels, he says, are less risky, since fewer people touch them.

 

“If someone with the virus has coughed or sneezed and then touches an inanimate object like a dumbbell or even the pen for a sign-in sheet, there is an increased chance of transmission, but no more than the flu,” he says. In the past four months there have been over 800 cases of novel coronavirus in the U.S. that we know of and, as of Tuesday, 28 deaths.

If you live in a city with an outbreak, Dr. Poland suggests skipping the studio and getting your endorphin fix at home through an online class or app. Outdoor exercise is also safe, he says, as long as you keep a distance from people. “A triathlon where you are jammed up with others wouldn’t be smart,” he says.

However, if you live someplace that has not experienced an outbreak, he suggests taking the same precautions you would during flu season. He recommends getting a flu vaccine and working out in areas with a minimum of 3 to 5 feet between pieces of equipment or other people.

And don’t just rinse your hands. Wash them for at least 20 seconds. “I have never seen a lay person wash their hands properly,” he says. “You put your fingertips, not your palms, in your eyes, nose or mouth. No one washes their fingertips.”

Gyms and fitness studios across the country have stepped up hygiene messaging and measures to give members peace of mind.

Barry’s Bootcamp advised clients to avoid “kissing, hugging and the sharing of cups and water bottles” at the gym. And Equinox says it is disinfecting all clubs with a hospital-grade solution three times a day. It’s asked instructors to eliminate skin-to-skin contact such as adjustments in yoga.

Keith Worts, the CEO of Crunch Signature, says the company hasn’t seen a change in usage over the past three weeks. “The biggest behavioral shift we’ve seen is that more people wipe down their equipment before and after use,” he says.

Nathan Reyna, a member of Elite by NYSC, an upscale offshoot of New York Sports Club, says he feels less paranoid going to the gym because he feels that his gym’s management is taking the coronavirus threat seriously.

“Not only have they emailed tips on how to combat the virus, but they have amped up deep cleans,” he says. Mr. Reyna, who says the gym is both his social hub and stress reliever, still takes extra precaution and brings his own disinfectant wipes and thoroughly washes his hands before and after his workouts. “I see a lot more people doing the same,” he says. “Maybe this should be the new norm.”

Kate Pallardy, an elite runner and New York Sports Club member, says she’s always washed her hands well pre- and post-workout. “For me, this is like the scares we’ve had with Zika, SARS or the flu,” she says. “No virus will ever stop me from working out.”

TIPS TO KEEP HEALTHY AND FIT

The continued spread of coronavirus has put hygiene at the top of everyone’s mind. Gyms and fitness studios are urging members to follow the CDC guidelines for preventing the spread of Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Beyond washing your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds and not touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands, here’s what fitness companies and health experts are suggesting people do to stay clean while exercising:

If you or someone in your household is sick, stay home from the gym.

Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.

Avoid the sauna and steam room. Those with colds often use them to break up congestion in the sinuses and lungs.

Use the disinfectant wipes available at the gym to wipe down machines and equipment before and after each use.

For surface cleaning, check with your gym to see if its products say “disinfectant” on the label and include an EPA registration number.

Use hand sanitizers that are at least 60% alcohol.

Bring your own yoga mat to class.

Avoid contact such as hands-on assists, passing over membership cards at check-in or high-fives with instructors.

Avoid packed classes where students are shoulder-to-shoulder. Try to maintain 6 feet of distance from other people.

Work out at home using a jump rope or an app or streamable workout.

 

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