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Don’t sweat it: Gyms are relatively safe during coronavirus outbreak, experts say

Coronavirus at the gym and on public transit: What are the risks?
ABOVE: Coronavirus at the gym and on public transit: What are the risks?

Editor’s Note: This story was published before the World Health Organization declared novel coronavirus a pandemic and Canada’s chief health officer labelled the virus a “serious public health threat.” Since the publication of this story, GoodLife Fitness has announced nationwide closures of all its fitness centres. For the latest coronavirus news, click here.

GoodLife Fitness — which has more than 300 gyms across Canada — sent an email to members on Monday outlining the steps they’re taking to keep their spaces clean during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Among them was the addition of hospital-grade cleaning solutions and advising members to “regularly wash their hands using soap and water,” per the advice of the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC).

GoodLife isn’t alone — several gyms have sent similar notices. For avid gym-goers, statements like these might present more questions than answers: Is it safe to go to the gym? How clean are the weights, mats and other equipment? Should I suspend my membership and opt for at-home workouts instead?

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However, experts say such notices aren’t reason to panic.

READ MORE: Woman who later tested positive for COVID-19 was passenger on GO bus to Richmond Hill

“I suspect that the main motivation for the gym would be simply to reassure people,” said Colin Furness, assistant professor at the institute for health policy management and evaluation at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto.

“I say that not because the gym isn’t important … but because in those kinds of environments, we [worry] more about bacteria spreading.”

Often hot and damp, gyms make the perfect breeding ground for bacteria.

Coronavirus Questions Answered
Coronavirus Questions Answered

“Bacteria … comes up in sweat, and you’ve got all these common touch surfaces that you’re leaning against, that you’re sitting on, that you’re holding with your hand,” Furness said.

However, if you’re generally healthy, you can go into a bacteria-laden environment like a gym and “come out the other end,” he said. “Most of the bacteria are harmless or fairly benign.”

The novel coronavirus — an upper respiratory virus — is not spread through bacteria. It also cannot be transmitted through sweat.

READ MORE: Coronavirus in Canada: Here’s a timeline of cases across the provinces

Instead, gyms likely have the “same kind of concerns we would have in any environment with common touch,” Furness said.

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He worries more about gym-goers who may not know they carry COVID-19 coughing into their hands and then touching equipment, for example.

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Cleanliness remains the “highest priority” for GoodLife, the company told Global News in a statement.

Coronavirus and the workplace
Coronavirus and the workplace

“We are taking proactive steps to protect against the spread of communicable illnesses, including COVID-19,” read the statement.

As mentioned, these include the inclusion of hospital-grade solutions, as well as “cleaning solutions designed for healthcare settings available throughout all our locations to ensure everyone wipes down equipment before and after each use.”

“GoodLife also has a dedicated team that meets multiple times per day to closely monitor recommendations from the Public Health Agency of Canada to keep everyone in our clubs up to date and to provide best practices in hand-washing and respiratory hygiene.”

READ MORE: Coronavirus: What exactly is social distancing? Here’s what experts say

How coronavirus spreads

“This virus is not SARS, it is not MERS, and it is not influenza,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, at a press conference Tuesday.

“COVID-19 spreads less efficiently than flu and transmission does not appear to be driven by people who are not sick.”

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While the numbers are constantly changing, the best current estimates are that each infected person will on average infect between two and four others, Dr. Alon Vaisman, an infection control and infectious diseases physician at Toronto’s University Health Network, previously told Global News.

READ MORE: Ontario reports three new cases of COVID-19, including U.S. travellers

That is a bit more than influenza, but much fewer than measles, where each case might infect on average 18 other people.

“Like all other respiratory viruses and coronaviruses, this coronavirus is spread through droplet transmission,” Vaisman said.

Coronavirus and the workplace
Coronavirus and the workplace

What that means is that when an infected person coughs or sneezes, they expel tiny water droplets containing the virus to a distance of about six feet away, he said.

These droplets are heavy enough that they can’t stay in the air for longer than a few minutes, so they fall onto whatever is under them: for example, a table or your arm.

When you bring these droplets to a mucous membrane, like your eye or your mouth, that’s how you might catch the virus.

What gyms can do

“Places where people gather in large numbers and share contact with common pieces of equipment post a risk to the transmission of any infectious organisms,” said Natasha Salt, director of infection prevention and control at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto.

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“That includes the flu, norovirus or COVID-19.”

That’s why it’s recommended extra precaution is taken in cleaning gyms.

READ MORE: Coronavirus — Canadian transit providers plan safeguards against COVID-19 outbreak

“[People exercising] could contaminate shared surfaces through unwashed hands or directly by coughing or sneezing on surfaces,” Salt said.

In managing these surfaces, gym companies should use cleaning products with disinfecting properties. Workers should also be mindful of how to use these products properly.

“Disinfectants don’t just instantly kill germs — they have a specific contact time [or] a period of time where the surface needs to remain wet,” she said.

What gym-goers can do

The good news: you don’t need to worry about other people’s sweat.

“Sweat is definitely not infectious,” Salt said. “We’re spreading germs through our unclean hands and going into these shared spaces when we’re actively sick.”

Practicing good hand hygiene is the best way to prevent yourself from contracting COVID-19 at the gym.

READ MORE: Ontario reports new COVID-19 case, patient used transit while symptomatic 

“Keep [your hands] away from your mouth, eyes and nose — all portals of entry,” she said.

It wouldn’t hurt to keep an alcohol sanitizer on hand for the moments in between using different pieces of equipment, and it’s crucial that you wash your hands before and after every workout.

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It may also be a good idea to bring some equipment, like mats, from home. “Anything that’s very absorbent is difficult to clean,” Salt said.

Finally, consider alternate strategies for staying active that don’t involve the gym.

COVID-19: The economic challenges posed by the virus
COVID-19: The economic challenges posed by the virus
“Stay home [and] send clear messaging to [others] to stay home when you’re sick,” Salt said.
“Think about alternate strategies to keeping healthy when you’re sick, such as [going] for a run or follow a YouTube video in your living room. You don’t always need to physically go to the gym.”

The new coronavirus was first identified in Hubei province, China, in December 2019 and spread rapidly. While the outbreak has begun to level off in China, it seems the virus has found a foothold in a number of countries around the world, and it continues to spread.

Confused about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Health officials say the risk is very low for Canadians, but they caution against travel to affected areas (a list can be found here). If you do travel to these places, they recommend you self-monitor to see whether you develop symptoms and if you do, to contact public health authorities.

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. And if you get sick, stay at home.

For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.

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Meghan.Collie@globalnews.ca