Is it Safe to Exercise in Indoor Gyms?

January is typically the time of the year when gyms and fitness facilities are packed with new members, or previously lax members, who resolve to start the new year on the right foot. But with omicron cases reaching new heights, the fitness industry has been hit hard — again. Anxiety is high as people fear infection from mingling with groups of strangers.

According to NBC News, fitness centers saw a 12% drop in traffic in the week of December 27, 2021 compared to the same week in 2020.

“There’s more concern again about being in a room where people are sweating,” said Kenneth Leon, global director of research and an industry analyst at CFRA, a research firm. But Leon admits that people still like to go to gyms, but until they feel safer, the stay-at-home mentality may prevail.

Experts say that the omicron variant has landed a one-two punch on the fitness industry already struggling from the pandemic. While larger, more secure gyms generally survived the pandemic, the smaller fitness facilities were dealt a financial blow. In 2019, there were 41,370 health clubs in the U.S. and by the middle of 2021, that number fell by 22%.

The positive effect of COVID-19 is that the illness gave people some motivation to improve their health to reduce or reverse risk factors such as obesity and diabetes. People also learned that a good workout could boost mental health and mood, says NBC. And then came omicron and the best laid plans for boosting fitness went largely by the wayside.

If you do decide to join a gym or continue your membership, public health officials and experts advise masking up. Several San Francisco Bay area counties issued mask mandates for indoor gyms even if everyone is fully vaccinated.

Different parts of the gym have varying degrees of risk, says Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease expert in San Francisco, according to the  Los Angeles Times. The least risk is in the weight room because users can spread out. The riskiest are indoor classes where people are near each other. Chin-Hong says that treadmills are in the moderate risk zone, depending on how far apart they are spaced.

“I’m just a little bit more uncertain about it with omicron because there’s so much more virus particles and they can linger there for probably a little longer,” he said. Indoor spin classes are particularly risky during this current surge because everyone is so close together, notes the expert. Early data found that the coronavirus can hang around in an indoor setting for over an hour even after the contagious person leaves the room.

Chin-Hong suggests waiting for the current surge to pass before returning to indoor classes.

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