The Risk Of Heading To Gyms And Fitness Classes Right Now

HuffPost UK reader Nancy wants to know how risky it is to go to a gym, fitness class or use exercise equipment.
Heading to the gym? Read this first.
Heading to the gym? Read this first.

Every week, we’ll answer your questions on Covid-19 and health in a feature published online. You can submit a question here.

HuffPost UK reader Nancy asked: “How risky is it going to a gym to use exercise equipment? What about a fitness dance class or Pilates class?”

Gyms and fitness classes have been back on the cards for a while – but with a new variant on the cards, how risky is it to be heading to them?

Your risk of catching Covid will depend on a number of factors, such as how well ventilated the space is, how many people are there, how good everyone is at sticking to social distancing, how long you spend there, and what the Covid cases are like in your area.

It also depends how many people attending your gym are vaccinated – we know having two doses of the jab reduces the chances of transmission, although it doesn’t remove the risk completely. If you’re fully vaccinated, your chances of catching it – and falling very ill with Covid – are pretty low.

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An infographic on Covid risk, which was shared widely in 2020, suggested exercising at gyms is a “medium risk activity” – probably as risky as going on an airplane, riding the bus, or eating out at a restaurant indoors.

Professor Jonathan Ball, a virologist at the University of Nottingham, told BBC Newsbeat the main risks with gyms are the vigorous exercising – which means people are breathing rapidly and deeply, and could therefore produce lots of aerosols that could infect others – as well as the touching of shared equipment.

But gyms have lots of measures in place to reduce transmission, and this appears to be working. Data from ukactive shared in early 2021 showed evidence of low prevalence of Covid-19 in fitness facilities, with an overall rate of just 1.7 cases per 100,000 visits.

From the end of July to the end of December 2020, there were a total of 1,277 Covid-19 cases among gym users that visited facilities over the 23-week period, against a backdrop of 2.3 million UK-wide cases in the same time.

Prof Ball also said from the data he’d seen from Public Health England, he was “not aware there is a significant hotspot for infections in the gym environment”.

That said, it’s still important to be cautious. The Delta variant, which is now the most dominant variant in the UK, is associated with roughly 60% increased risk of household transmission compared to the Alpha variant.

Since reopening, gyms have put a lot of procedures in place to stay Covid secure. Huw Edwards, CEO of ukactive, tells HuffPost UK, these include social distancing, enhanced cleaning and industry-leading ventilation. “Working with the government, the Covid-19 safety guidance for the fitness industry means that people using gyms, pools, leisure centres and studios can feel safe, and supported, in following the rules,” he says.

Gym equipment is regularly sanitised, some gyms have one-way systems and are running smaller and shorter fitness classes, which are better for reducing the chances of transmission, and many have good ventilation systems in place. People are urged to wear face coverings in non-active areas, which helps to reduce the risk even more.

Such venues are hugely important for improving mental and physical health – and ukactive reports many people have returned “confidently” since facilities reopened.

If you’re still worried about returning to the gym, that’s totally normal. Professor Keith Neal, an epidemiologist at University of Nottingham, suggests going at quieter times, if possible – the fewer people there are in your gym, the lower your risk of catching Covid will be.

He also recommends maintaining social distancing (which means close range convos with your PT should be off the cards), turning up in your gym wear, going home to shower, and travelling to and from the gym in your car, either alone or with people in your household.

If you’re really worried about catching Covid, it might be helpful to opt for fitness classes which don’t involve a lot of heavy breathing – so Pilates and yoga, as opposed to HIIT classes – and to wipe down any gym equipment before and after using it. If you can, avoid touching your face when you’re at the gym.

Experts are still learning about Covid-19. The information in this story is what was known or available at the time of publication, but guidance could change as scientists discover more about the virus. To keep up to date with health advice and cases in your area, visit gov.uk/coronavirus and nhs.uk.