strategist investigates

How Safe Are Group Fitness Classes Right Now?

Photo: Cole Burston/Getty/Getty Images

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, kettlebells and resistance bands have been hot commodities (right up there with toilet paper and hand sanitizer) as we pivoted from working out at the gym to exercising at home. Those of us who like the motivation of following along with an instructor turned to virtual workout classes on Instagram Live and other subscription platforms for our fitness fix. Streaming a class at home isn’t exactly the same as participating in person, though, especially if you enjoy the camaraderie of a group class or are tempted to press pause mid-workout. So when gyms and studios took their classes outside to parks and rooftops during the spring and summer to allow for social distancing (Physique 57, 305 Fitness, Barry’s, and Tone House are still offering outdoor classes throughout the city this month), working out almost started to feel normal again.

But what will we do when it gets too cold? Depending on local regulations, reopened gyms have introduced a variety of safety measurements. Crunch, for example, is limiting occupancy to one-third in many gyms and installing advanced air-filtration systems. Last month, Equinox opened Equinox+ In the Wild, a full outdoor club near Hudson Yards that offers both group classes and equipment for working out on your own. With heat lamps and tented areas, it’ll be a safe, outdoor option even as winter approaches.

Indoor group classes are currently not allowed in New York City, but if they do open up (or you live in an area where they’re happening), how can you best protect yourself and others from COVID? To find out, we asked two infectious-disease doctors — W. David Hardy of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and Peter Katona of the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA — about everything from exercising with a mask to sharing equipment.

Both doctors agree that, weather permitting, outdoor classes are still the way to go. “If you’re outdoors, you’ve got sunlight, you’ve got temperature, you’ve got air currents — you’ve got all these things working in your favor,” Katona says. But if you don’t have that option and you find yourself in an indoor class, there are steps that you and your gym can take to make the experience as safe as possible.

One thing to look out for is how well your studio promotes air circulation, whether through leaving doors or windows open or maintaining a high-quality HVAC system. Class capacity should also be far smaller than in normal times to allow for distancing — lots of distancing. “Six feet would be the bare minimum,” Hardy says, “because while you’re exercising, you are breathing forcefully.” Those hard exhalations could cause you to expel more respiratory particles, and those particles could travel a longer distance compared to regular breathing. You should also keep an eye on the rate of positive COVID tests and new cases in your area when deciding if you feel comfortable taking an indoor class. As Katona says, “How much you do indoors and how safe it is indoors is going to depend, to a large degree, on how much virus is out there in your community.”

On a personal level, make sure you have a face mask that meets all the recommended criteria — one that has multiple layers of thick cloth that you can’t shine a light through. (My favorite is included below.) Even if you feel like you can’t breathe normally with a mask on — especially if you’re huffing and puffing during a hard workout — doctors say it’s essential to resist any temptation to pull the mask down and expose your nose or mouth. “The reality of it is you probably are getting enough air, enough oxygen — it just doesn’t feel like you are because there is something in front of your mouth and nose that you have to breathe through,” Hardy says. Because masks are absolutely necessary to protect yourself and others indoors, our experts say it’s vital that mask-wearing rules are constantly enforced. That is: instructors making sure everyone has a mask covering their mouth and nose and asking anyone who doesn’t follow the policy to leave.

In terms of shared equipment, Hardy explains that the virus is not transmitted through sweat and rarely spreads through contact with surfaces, but if someone is breathing heavily on a piece of equipment, like a mat, their respiratory droplets could land on that surface. “The problem comes in if you touch a surface and then your hand comes into contact with your mouth or nose,” he says. Because we often do these motions without thinking, he recommends that all equipment be wiped down between uses. Of course, don’t forget to keep up your regular handwashing, and consider bringing your own equipment if your gym’s staff, or other participants, aren’t practicing good hygiene.

However and wherever you choose to stay fit as the weather cools, here is some Strategist-approved gear to pack that will help you protect yourself and others:

UA SportsMask
$27
$27

With my experience as a runner, this is the best mask I’ve tried for exercising so far. It stays propped up a bit over your mouth, so you’re not inhaling fabric with every breath, and it’s relatively cool and sweat-wicking. It comes in different sizes so you can get a comfortable fit. (In my experience, it’s best to go down one size from what UA recommends.)

Made with 62 percent alcohol, this unscented hand sanitizer meets the CDC guidelines. Since it comes in an easy-to-use spray, you can quickly clean your hands and any equipment you touch during class.

Manduka PROlite Yoga Mat, 71 Inches
From $74
From $74

A favorite among yogis, this lightweight mat is easy to tote to class and useful for any workout where you need some cushioning.

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How Safe Are Group Fitness Classes Right Now?