Salvation is nigh! Gyms are reopening as of 25 July, and already that lockdown paunch you’ve been protecting over the past few months is packing its bags. It’s time to get fit again.
Of course, the reopening of gyms in the ‘new normal’ is going to herald a different type of workout space. Covid-friendly gyms will probably have fewer banks of treadmills and exercise bikes; some equipment will have to be cleared away to make sure people can work out while socially distant.
But the return to gyms won’t just be about changing the layout. Fitness enthusiasts will have to change their behaviour to keep themselves and others safe. Gym etiquette is a contentious issue at the best of times and in the age of Covid it’s only going to become more so.
So, once you’ve booked your gym session (yep, all visits to the gym, not just for classes, will need to be arranged in advance), what do you need to know? Here’s how to conduct yourself safely on your journey around the gym floor.
At the weights
This is arguably where the biggest changes in gym etiquette will be necessary, because the weights section is where you’re likely to have the most contact with shared surfaces. If one person has just used a dumbbell, in theory, that dumbbell could be a ‘vector of disease’ for the next 48 hours – or until it’s cleaned.
“Gyms will have additional wipes and antibacterial sprays available,” says Dr Simran Deo from UK-based online doctor Zava UK. “Try to use these before and after you use each bit of equipment to help protect yourself and others. Throw disposable towels or wipes straight in the bin after using them, and wash your hands after handling.”
Once you’ve wiped the equipment off, give it a moment before you pick it up. According to WHO studies, it takes about 30 seconds for a standard alcoholic wipe to kill the virus.
If you’re the type who tends to grunt when handling weights, Deo also advises you to restrain yourself. Much like how singing is currently banned at weddings, loud grunts can project coronavirus and negate the benefit of social distancing. “Covid-19 is spread through water or mucus droplets from the nose and mouth,” says Dr Deo. “You spread more droplets when talking loudly, shouting or grunting, so try to keep it down while lifting those weights.”
As ever, social distancing should still be observed and that’ll mean that unless you live with your gym buddy, spotting (the act of supporting someone’s weights as they lift of lower them) won’t be possible. With this in mind, be respectful of others by only using weights you can comfortably manage so you don’t get into trouble. Doing more reps with lighter weights can be just as effective as doing less with heavier.
On the treadmill or exercise bike
If you’re doing aerobic exercise then chances are that you’re going to be panting. Is that a problem?
“It’s not fully clear if heavy breathing when exercising close to others increases your risk of contracting and spreading the virus, but some experts suggest that it may,” says Dr Luke Powles, associate clinical director of BUPA Health Clinics. It’s a logical assumption: the more you breath the more viral droplets you’ll either project or be exposed to. However, there’s little by way of evidence here, so common sense should prevail, in the form of social distancing. You’ll be helped by the fact that gyms will spread out their machines.
What about face masks? The Government advises us to wear them in enclosed spaces like shops and public transport – but not offices or gyms.
According to the experts I spoke to, wearing a face mask while exercising is probably safe, so long as you take into careful consideration that you could be decreasing the flow of air to your lungs. But there was no real consensus on whether it was a necessary step to take. It seems unlikely that wearing a face mask will become a point of etiquette when gyms reopen.
Gyms will be advised to “have temporary floor markings where possible to help people stay distanced during classes”, so make sure you stay in your lane. If you can, book a class outdoors – the risk of transmission is much lower than indoors.
You should also be aware that class instructors won’t be able to touch you to correct your form. Now may not be the ideal time to make your debut in yoga class.
Showers and changing rooms
In short: try very hard not to use them. Government advice says that wherever possible, gym patrons should be encouraged to change and shower at home. However, if that is impossible for you, no rules are mandating that gyms must close their changing rooms. You’ll still probably have access to a shower and a locker.
Bear in mind that the shower room might be a great breeding ground for the virus, says Dr Deo. “Viruses and bacteria both replicate in warm, humid environments,” she says (one of her arguments against wearing face masks while exercising is that the masks would likely become breeding grounds for germs). “If you’ve got a steamy shower room that other people have been in, the virus will be happy and replicate quickly in that environment.”
In addition, hair dryers are discouraged as they have the potential to blow viral droplets further than the two metre social distancing rule. Use a towel if you can. “If you’re rubbing vigorously it’ll break down the external structure of the virus even if you don’t have an antiviral cleanser or a high alcohol content sanitiser,” adds Dr Deo.
Water bottles and vending machines
Obviously dehydration can be dangerous in a gym context; the virus isn’t the only thing that can make you unwell. Perhaps you fancy a snack or a drink on your way out of the gym. Don’t be afraid to do so, but take some basic precautions, suggests Dr Deo. “Probably the best thing to do is to take wipes with you, wipe down the buttons and wipe down the food or drinks that come out,” she says. “You don’t know who has loaded up the machine or how long ago and whether everything was sanitised before doing so.”
Congratulations, you’ve just completed your first Covid-safe workout at the gym. How about a high five to celebrate? “Yeah, don’t do that,” says Dr Deo. “You’re more likely to have rubbed your eyes and your nose because lots of people sweat facially. You may well have been breathing heavily so you may have transmitted it to your hands. Therefore, if you high five it’s quite likely to be transmitted.”