While most gyms and studios closed their doors at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, many fitness spaces have since reopened—though some may look a little different in terms of occupancy, procedures, and offerings. For instance, in many locations, the packed, shoulder-to-shoulder indoor fitness classes have been paused, and some businesses are offering outdoor fitness classes instead.
These closures occurred because of how the new coronavirus is primarily spread: through respiratory droplets that circulate in the air, Tingting. J. Wong, M.D., an internist and infectious disease specialist at New York-Presbyterian Medical Group Brooklyn, tells SELF. These respiratory droplets can be expelled from people with the virus who cough, sneeze, or talk, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and people within close proximity—that’s the six-feet guideline we hear all the time—are at the greatest risk.
It’s also possible that people can contract the virus by touching surfaces that contain the droplets, and then touching their mouth, nose, or eyes, though this is likely not the main way the virus spreads, the CDC says. In addition, the CDC says that there’s potential for COVID-19 to spread via airborne transmission, as small droplets can linger in the air for some period of time or reach people farther than six feet away, SELF previously reported.
This all makes gyms and fitness studios—where you ride close together during indoor cycling classes, congregate at the dumbbell rack, and breathe heavily on the treadmill—potentially risky places. That’s why many fitness spaces are now offering outdoor fitness classes as a way to mitigate that risk. But, are you safe to get your sweat on that way? Here’s what you need to know.
What are the COVID-19 risks with fitness classes?
Many gyms that reopened did so with new safety protocols. As cases dropped during the late summer in hard-hit states like New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut, governors have allowed gyms to reopen under health guidances, such as reduced capacities—about 25-50%—mask mandates, and new sanitization and social distancing protocols. As part of these guidelines, many gyms have also upgraded their heat, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems to reduce the potential for airborne transmission of the virus.
But even with these new guidelines, many indoor fitness classes have not resumed, though other parts of their gym or studio may now open. And this mainly goes back to the idea of viral droplets circulating in the air, and the risk of class participants not being able to stay far enough apart to keep respiratory droplets potentially containing the virus from infecting other people.
“Indoor exposures, particularly in poor ventilated areas with people breathing heavily and talking, would carry much risk for infection if any of the class members are currently infectious—and people can be infectious before symptoms start,” Scott Weisenberg, M.D., clinical associate professor of medicine and infectious disease specialist at NYU Langone Health, tells SELF. “While the virus can probably spread through exercise equipment, the main risk is going to be through the air with people in your immediate vicinity.”
In fact, an April 2020 study from South Korea reported a cluster of 112 positive COVID-19 cases tracked to fitness dance classes at 12 different fitness studios. While the instructors were asymptomatic at the time of the classes, tests later revealed that eight of the 27 dance instructors were positive for COVID-19, which they passed on to some of their class participants. According to the study, 57 class participants out of 217 tested positive (the rest of the cluster came from transmission among family or with coworkers).
In addition to the fact that instructors and class participants weren’t required to wear a mask during their workouts, health experts believe that the large class size, small space, and intensity of the workout were all factors that played into the high rates of transmission. (In fact, no class participants in a low-intensity yoga class ended up testing positive.)
“Granted, people weren’t wearing masks and it was in an indoor space,” Dr. Wong says. “These people were just dancing, but they were breathing heavily, which made the risk of transmission very high.”
Are outdoor fitness classes any safer?
Just like outdoor dining, health experts say that outdoor fitness classes are much safer than indoor ones because they allow for better airflow and ventilation. This can better disperse respiratory droplets, potentially reducing the risk of them landing on your mouth or eyes, or on surfaces that you may touch and then transfer to your mouth, nose and eyes. It also likely reduces the risk of airborne transmission as well.
Humberto Choi, M.D., a pulmonologist at the Cleveland Clinic who treats COVID-19 patients in the intensive care unit, adds that the breeze—which aids airflow—also plays a role in making outdoor classes a safer option.
That’s why many gyms and studios have begun offering outdoor offerings. For example, the Fhitting Room, a HIIT studio based in New York City, recently started hosting outdoor classes in Central Park, Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn, and on the rooftop at Showfields.
Plus, SoulCycle is offering its indoor cycling classes outdoors in Hoboken and Short Hills in New Jersey; Hudson Yards, Bridgehampton and Montauk in New York; Union Market in D.C.; downtown LA, Santa Monica, and Manhattan Beach in California, among others. And if you’re in the mood to dance, 305 Fitness has 45-minute outdoor group classes in New York City, Boston, and Washington D.C.
Health experts say that while the risk of transmission isn’t completely eliminated with outdoor fitness classes, it’s significantly lower.
“If you’re outdoors, the risk is not zero, but it is much lower than indoors,” Dr. Weisenberg says. “Exercise and heavy breathing may increase this chance, but it should still be low, as long as you are outside and social distancing is maintained. Mask wearing can further reduce this risk.” (More on this later.)
How can you stay safe in an outdoor fitness class?
While generally speaking, an outdoor fitness class is going to be a safer option than an indoor one, all outdoor classes are not the same in risk level—and there are some things in your control (and some in your gym’s) that can make them safer or riskier.
Location and setup is one of these factors. For example, some classes might claim to be outdoors on a rooftop, but it’s actually on a rooftop that’s semi-covered, Dr. Wong says—which brings up the whole ventilation issue again. “That may not be as safe as a completely open rooftop, so people need to be mindful of those,” she says.
The smaller the outdoor class is, the better, says Dr. Wong. But the amount of spacing between participants matters more than its total size, Dr. Weisenberg says.
While the CDC recommends maintaining at least six feet apart from other people in public settings, health experts advise farther if possible. Chances are you’ll be moving in all types of directions during class, which can shorten the distance between you and the next person, so it’s best to spread farther apart if you can.
“Six feet is not a magic number, so a little extra space beyond that would provide incremental additional protection,” Dr. Weisenberg says. “Ideally, it would never be less than six feet, but if that happens, the less time you spend at a closer distance, the lower the risk should be.”
Classes that use shared equipment—especially ones in a circuit fashion, where people are rotating from one thing to the next—are likely riskier than those that designate individual equipment. “If you ever have to share any equipment, just make sure that it has been wiped down,” Dr. Wong says. “I would never share any equipment with anybody unless it’s been cleaned.”
So definitely bring your own yoga mat, and disinfect any public equipment beforehand. (Make sure you allow a minute or two for it to dry before use, Richard Go, M.D., an infectious disease specialist at Jersey City Medical Center in Jersey City tells SELF.)
You should also make sure that the class you’re considering requires masks, especially if adequate distance can’t be maintained at all times.
“Wearing a mask not only protects other people, but it also helps protect you,” Dr. Choi says. In fact, a June 2020 systematic review commissioned by the World Health Organization in The Lancet suggests that wearing a face mask not only protects against the spread of disease, but it can also significantly reduce the risk of infection for the wearer. (The risk reduction was greatest for N95 masks, but there was still a benefit for disposable surgical masks—which, like N95s, the general public should reserve for health care workers—or cloth masks.)
However, some people may be tempted to take off their masks during exercise because of heavy breathing or overheating. As long as proper distance is maintained outdoors, working out without a mask does carry less of a risk of transmission, according to the experts. But it’s important to remember that not everyone in your class will feel comfortable if you do remove your mask, so keeping it on is the courteous (and safest) thing to do right now. (And if you have health conditions like asthma, COPD, diabetes, or hypertension, you should definitely wear a mask, says Dr. Wong.)
Exercising in a mask will feel different, especially at first, as SELF previously reported, but for most healthy people, it’s perfectly safe. Just make sure to choose a breathable mask for exercising, and get used to it with lower-intensity work before taking it right into a high-intensity workout. And if people in your class are exercising without a mask, you might want to increase your distance—keep about 12 feet apart from each other, especially if you’re doing anything that’s highly cardiac in nature and you are really breathing hard, Dr. Go says.
As for things you probably don’t need to do to stay safe? Wearing gloves can actually make things worse: They can give people a false sense of security, as well as an excuse to not wash their hands or sanitize them as frequently, Dr. Wong says. Wash your hands frequently instead. If you don’t have easy access to a sink and soap, carrying a hand sanitizer made of at least 60% alcohol can help, as SELF reported.
There also has been no data to show that people can transmit the virus through sweat, says Dr. Wong. Still, you should always wipe down any sweaty, shared equipment before using it.
So, should you take an outdoor fitness class now?
COVID-19 is a novel coronavirus, meaning it’s new, so there are still a lot of things we don’t know about it yet. That means we don’t know exactly what the risk is for outdoor fitness classes—though the consensus is pretty strong that it should be lower than indoor ones.
But even when taking these safety precautions into consideration, there is still some risk in attending an outdoor group fitness class. If you’re worried about your risk and are unsure how the class you’re considering is handling COVID-19 precautions, the best thing you can do is gather information about it before you commit to going. Dr. Wong recommends calling the gym or studio offering the group fitness class in advance to find out how many people are registered and to inquire about the space: whether it has good ventilation, if people are able to stay six feet apart or more, or if it’s in a public place like a park (where other people not in the class may be able to walk around you).
Those answers can guide you, but ultimately, you have to consider your own health and individual risk factors, as well as the amount of community spread in your area. Do you live with a chronic condition? Is it really necessary for you to take a group fitness class right now, or can you enjoy the experience just as much virtually? Your answer to these questions can help you determine if trying out an outdoors exercise class right now is the right choice for you.