It’s been a confusing year for gym-goers. At the beginning of March, gyms, fitness centres and health clubs were instructed to close their doors with no relief in sight. Home workouts quickly became the norm and gym equipment sold out everywhere online. Mid-July marked a nationwide re-opening for fitness facilities and, with it, a slow and social-distance-compliant return to the squat rack, with hand sanitiser and wipes in tow.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t to last — in mid-October, a ‘three tier’ alert system took effect across England, with local authorities hit with new and specific restrictions designed to nix rising covid-19 infections across the country. Gyms, unsurprisingly, were ordered to close on a case-by-case basis by local authorities in tier 3 areas such as Liverpool and Merseyside, as well as pubs, bars and other high-foot traffic areas.

The decisions weren’t taken lightly. For example, one gym owner in Merseyside was fined £1000 by armed police for refusing to close his gym.

Should Gyms Be Included in Tier Three Restrictions?

The question needs to be asked: are these new safety measures applicable to gyms, spaces with regimented cleaning rotas and mostly respectful members? And, do they match up with the science behind social interaction and coronavirus? What about the relationship between physical health and the building of mental strength as covid cases begin to rise?

These are just some of the queries that have got gym-goers scratching their heads over the new rules, and how they’re affected by them. Below, we’ve laid out everything you’ll need to know about the hotly-contested relationship between gyms, fitness centres and health clubs and covid-19. (Continued below)

The Tier System, Explained

Tier 1:

Transmission rate: Fewer than 100 cases per 100,000 of population
Restrictions: Social distancing, rule of six, 10pm curfews
– Gyms to remain open. Health centres to remain open. Team sports allowed

        Tier 2:
        Transmission rate: Cases above 100 per 100,000 of population, triggered when a rise in transmission cannot be contained.
        Restrictions: Social distancing, rule of six, 10pm curfews, ban on different households mixing
        – Gyms to remain open. Health centres to remain open. Team sports/organised sports still allowed.

              Tier 3:
              Transmission rate: When level two measures have not contained the virus, or where there has been a significant rise in transmission
              Restrictions: Ban on different households mixing, full lockdown with most non-essential businesses closed, schools remain open workplaces remain open
              Gyms expected to close. Health centres to close. Team sports not allowed.

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              Gyms and Coronavirus: What’s the Science?

              Depending on where you look, there’s evidence and commentary to support both sides of the story. There is one common denominator, though — it remains preferable to exercise outdoors over a confined space where transmission rates will be lower. If you have to use a training facility, try to find a space where you can exercise away from others and wipe everything down after you’ve used it. But let’s get to the science.

              In June, we published an article detailing how a University of Oslo study found it was safe for local gyms to reopen in Norway and how using a gym didn’t increase the participants’ risk of contracting coronavirus (covid-19). The two-week study used randomised participants aged 18 to 64-years-old with no underlying health conditions. With 80 per cent of the participants using the gym at least once during the study — 38 per cent went six times — and the remaining selection of participants keeping away from the gym, the results concluded that, of the 3764 participants, only one person caught coronavirus during the research period. Interestingly, the single patient was in the non-gym group and, in Oslo, 207 people had already contracted coronavirus separately.

              However, it’s easy to understand how gyms, typically a high-foot traffic area with people exercising vigorously and sweating on equipment (it happens), can become an easy target. “[Using gyms,] you do tend to exercise quite vigorously, that means that you can breathe rapidly and quite deeply. Therefore, we would expect that you could potentially produce droplets or aerosols that could go on to infect other people,” explained Professor Jonathan Ball, an expert in viruses from the University of Nottingham, to BBC Newsbeat. Discussing how gyms are a high-contact area, with people wicking away sweat and touching their faces, the risk of the environment is dramatically lowered through effective air-conditioning, cleaning, social distancing and, of course, hand sanitising.

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              “From the data that I’ve seen from Public Health England, I’m not aware that there is a significant hotspot for infections in the gym environment,” Ball continues. “So if gyms do come under extra scrutiny, I think it’s important for the government and for scientists to explain the data that’s led to these things getting more restrictions.”

              “We are calling for the government to re-categorise all fitness and leisure facilities as essential services,” UK Active chief executive Huw Edwards also said. “So that they can be fully supported to stay open during this period and play their role in the nation’s fight against covid‑19.”

              Similarly, recent research using data from more than 1300 gyms, health clubs and leisure centres found that, from the three weeks from reopening (25 July to 16 August), there were more than eight million visits to fitness facilities. From the data, only 17 people visiting gyms in England went on to test positive for covid-19, resulting in 0.020 cases for every 10,000 visits.

              Ultimately, as Patrick Green M.D., UCHealth general cardiologist with special interest in sports cardiology, says, this is a case-by-case and individual decision, especially when personal level or risk, environment and activity levels are factored in. “I have personally advised some of my older patients who are at increased covid risk to avoid the gym for now,” he explains.

              man doing strength workout exercise in gym with face mask

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              Gyms and Coronavirus: Should I Wear a Mask or Gloves?

              If, like many others, you’ve decided to make a triumphant return to the squat rack, you’ll doubtless have seen fellow gym-goers rocking a face mask during the workout. Lesser-spotted, however, is the person wearing gloves. But it could be for naught.

              That’s because decent hand hygiene is preferable to wearing gloves. Most people who wear gloves are not changing, cleaning or replacing them frequently enough, and so are more likely to be touching surfaces with dirty, bacteria-ridden gloves. It’s noticeably easier to wash your hands with sanitiser in-between sets, or when you’re switching between gym equipment.

              Purvi Parikh, M.D., allergist and immunologist with the Allergy & Asthma network, suggests wearing a mask at the gym. This will help cut down on your risk of transmitting the respiratory virus to others and, as an added benefit, can help you avoid touching your face. Government guidelines currently recommend wearing a mask in public settings, and the gym is no exception. It’s also mandatory to wear face masks on public transport, in supermarkets, barbers and other interior public areas. You can see the full list here. However, exercising and lifting with a face mask may make it more difficult to breathe, so , adjust your workout intensity accordingly.

              covid19 athletes during training at the gym

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              Gyms and Coronavirus: I Had Covid-19. When Can I Go Back?

              According to Dr Juliet McGrattan (MBChB), there are several points you’ll need to address to get back to your best after contracting coronavirus.

              Make sure you are fully better

              “The longer you have been unwell and the more serious your experience of coronavirus, then the longer it is going to take you to recover and get back to exercise. It’s important to set the right expectations for yourself.”

              Take it slowly

              “Use your common sense. Begin with just a short walk. See how you feel and build up gradually from there.”

              Listen to your body

              “If you begin to feel unwell again or you felt completely wiped out by the activity you did, then just move back a step and try again with something easier when you feel able.”

              Rest and recover

              “Your body has been busy healing itself from illness and when you then add exercise to the mix it’s a good idea to allow a little extra sleep and rest for your body to restore and repair itself.”

              Stay positive

              “Pace yourself and take things gradually. It might feel like you’re taking baby steps at first but will be surprised at how quickly you will regain your fitness. Remember that being active will help to keep your immune system in good shape to fight off future infections.”

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