Staying Safe at the Gym During the Coronavirus Outbreak

Five simple steps will help you minimize your risk

treadmill at gym PhotoAlto/Ale Ventura

Update: Public health officials now say to avoid any gatherings of 10 people or more. Many gyms are temporarily closed as part of the effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Like all public spaces where people gather, gyms and fitness centers are places where viral illnesses—including COVID-19—can spread. And the shared weights, sweaty stretching areas, and heavy breathing may put you on high alert.

But gyms don't necessarily pose a risk greater than any other public space. Based on the research so far, COVID-19 appears to spread primarily through close personal contact with an infected person, though public health officials warn that touching high-contact public surfaces could potentially lead to disease transmission, too.

Taking the proper precautions can lessen your risk of becoming ill. Here’s what you need to know about staying safe from COVID-19 at the gym.

Coronavirus Risk at the Gym

When it comes to the gym, there’s some good news: “We know that the coronavirus is not found in sweat,” says Amesh Adalja, M.D., an infectious disease physician, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, and spokesperson for the Infectious Diseases Society of America.

More on Coronavirus

COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, appears to spread primarily when people cough or sneeze and respiratory droplets land on those nearby. “Heavy breathing during exercise won’t shed the virus,” says Manish Trivedi, M.D., director of the division of infectious diseases and chairman of infection prevention and control at AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center in New Jersey. “It’s coughing or sneezing [onto others or onto nearby exercise equipment] that we’re concerned about,” he says.

Respiratory droplets can spread up to six feet, which is why public health officials recommend putting this distance between yourself and others, especially in public places.

Objects in the gym that are touched frequently, including exercise machines, mats, and dumbbells could potentially serve as a reservoir for viruses and other germs—especially because people may cough into their hands and then use equipment.

What Gyms Are Doing

Consumer Reports reached out to 10 large gym chains to ask whether they are implementing any special precautions while COVID-19 is spreading. We heard back from a few—mostly with information about vigilant cleaning, hand sanitizer stations, and admonitions to members to stay home when sick.

“Team members conduct regular and thorough cleaning of all equipment, surfaces, and areas of the club and gym floor using disinfectant cleaning supplies. In addition, they regularly complete overnight cleaning of the facility,” wrote a Planet Fitness spokesperson, in an email to Consumer Reports. According to the spokesperson, Planet Fitness also has placed signage at the front desk of all 2,000-plus locations reminding members to wash hands frequently and disinfect equipment before and after each use.

A statement from the president and CEO of Gold’s Gym said: “We always encourage our members to wipe down equipment after every use, and to utilize the hand sanitizer stations we provide throughout our gyms.”

Life Time, a chain of luxury health clubs in the U.S. and Canada, has added more hours to payroll for cleaning, according to a company spokesperson. “Certain departments are doing increased cleaning every 15 minutes, certainly in high-traffic areas. We are being more diligent in studio spaces (cycle, yoga, Pilates, group fitness),” the spokesperson wrote in an email. The chain also has started to discourage physical contact. “In the past where we’d encourage participants to give high fives and some physical contact in classes and small group trainings, we’re doing the opposite.”

A spokesperson for OrangeTheory Fitness wrote that the gym “encourages members to listen to their bodies with extra caution during this time as we do not recommend signing up or working out when they have a fever, are coughing, sneezing or experiencing shortness of breath.”

In areas where COVID-19 is spreading, some local branches are also choosing to temporarily shut down. In a statement announcing its temporary closure, the JCC Manhattan community center said they “want to be part of the solution and not part of the problem.”

If you're not sure if your gym is stepping up to help prevent the spread of the virus by doing extra cleaning or providing disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer for members, ask.

What You Can Do to Minimize Your Risk

Whether your gym is doing extra cleaning or not, your own actions may be most important for protecting yourself—and the other gym members. Here are a few steps you can take.

Go at off-peak hours. A small study conducted in three gyms in Brazil in 2018 found that risk of catching a contagious respiratory illness may be lower when there are fewer people at the gym. The study, which estimated risk from influenza and tuberculosis (not coronavirus), showed that in all gyms, “risk of infection increased during periods of peak occupancy.”

Wipe down equipment. Karen Hoffmann, R.N., an infection prevention specialist at the University of North Carolina’s School of Medicine in Chapel Hill and immediate past president of the Association of Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology, recommends wiping down gym equipment with disinfectant wipes before and after each use.

Many gyms provide disinfectant wipes or sprays for members to use on equipment. If you choose to bring your own wipes, look for ones that contain at least 60 percent alcohol or chlorine bleach—or just make sure it's actually a disinfectant wipe, and not just designed for personal hygiene, recommends Hoffmann. (There are several wipes on the EPA's list of recommended cleaning products to fight COVID-19.) “The coronavirus appears to be very susceptible to these cleaning and disinfecting agents,” she says.

Make sure to get the surface completely wet and wait 30 seconds to one minute for it to air dry. If you’re using a paper wipe, there should be enough wetness to make the complete surface look wet. Wipes that are dried out are no longer effective, says Hoffmann.

Keep your hands off your face. Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth when working out at the gym, Trivedi recommends. “The way we infect ourselves isn’t by touching dirty surfaces, but by bringing the virus from the hands to the face,” he says.

Practice good hand hygiene. Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds when you're done with a machine, or use a hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol. Make sure you also do so before touching your face or any part of your water bottle you put your mouth on. Do so again before leaving the gym.

Stay home if you’re sick. The CDC recommends staying home if you’re sick. “This can mean staying home when you are only mildly ill and might otherwise decide to power through a workout,” says a post from the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, which represents 9,200 member clubs in 70 countries. According to the IHRSA, some fitness clubs and studios have started offering virtual classes, programming workouts for people to do at home, or providing personal training via video chat.

portrait of Lindsey

Lindsey Konkel

Lindsey Konkel is a New Jersey-based journalist and freelancer for Consumer Reports reporting on health and science. She’s written for print and online publications including Newsweek, National Geographic News, and Scientific American.