Is It Safe to Go Back to the Gym? What Science Says

Is It Safe to Go Back to the Gym? What Science Says
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Key Takeaways

  1. In a recent study, Norwegian researchers had 1,500 former gym goers return to the gym during the lockdown, and another 1,500 former gym goers stay home.
  2. None of the participants caught COVID-19 from the gym, and on the whole, all of them had a much lower risk of becoming infected than the average population.
  3. According to some people, though, this doesn’t mean it’s safe to go back to the gym. Keep reading to learn who’s right!

Imagine for a moment that we’ve just received a message from an alien race in a galaxy far, far away.

“Hey, Earthlings,” it reads. “Want to hang out?”

Despite Elon Musk’s protests, our response would probably be something along the lines of “We’re in a weird place right now . . . can you call back later?”

While the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic seems to be behind us, and most countries have begun reopening, many restrictions remain in place around the world. Social distancing, mask wearing, occupancy limitations, and border closures are all in effect, and now the question on everyone’s mind is, When can we open up completely? 

After all, the original goal of the lockdowns, social distancing, and so forth was to “flatten the curve”—to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed by an onslaught of COVID-19 patients—but that threat never seemed to materialize. 

For example, in New York City, one of the hardest hit areas in the U.S., hospitals reached about 85% capacity, and intensive care units hit about 90% capacity during the worst phase of the pandemic. High, yes, but not overflowing.

In Virginia, 75% of ventilators and nearly 6,000 hospital beds were unused or empty back in April, and that number is likely much lower now. Instead of increasing demand for doctors, the pandemic resulted in thousands of healthcare workers being laid off due to a reduction in non-COVID-19-related visits.

What’s more, the CDC reports that people exhibiting flu- or COVID-19-like symptoms only made up about 7% of total hospitalizations in the U.S. in March, and now it’s under 2%.

In other words, the curve was flattened.

However, now the target seems to have changed from “flattening the curve” to “finding a cure,” which, while laudable, is a goal that could take years to bear fruit. 

Thus, our current predicament has divided society into two camps.

On the one hand, many people want to begin strategically reopening certain places, based on the available evidence and careful cost-benefit analyses of what that would mean for the population.

On the other hand, there are those that think any further reopenings would be reckless, and until we find a cure, concoct a vaccine, or have all but eradicated COVID-19, we need to get used to “the new normal.”

While only time will tell who’s right in the main, a recent study conducted by scientists at the University of Oslo offers some guidance on what would happen if countries were to open one kind of business—gyms.

Before we look at what they discovered, let’s quickly examine a more fundamental question that relates to reopenings on the whole. 

 

Has the Cure Become Worse than the Disease?

Are Gyms Safe Right Now? What To Know About COVID-19

 

The Oslo authors open their study by sharing a fact that’s been largely lost in the maelstrom of panic-inducing headlines about the pandemic: 

There are negative consequences to maintaining the status quo too. 

Closing gyms, parks, and recreation centers significantly limits peoples’ ability to stay active, which research shows not only helps protect against viral infections like COVID-19, but also reduces the risk of just about every other disease and dysfunction you can think of. 

There’s already evidence that lockdowns have increased childhood obesity, a condition likely to get worse as poor exercise and diet habits learned during lockdowns manifest themselves over the months and years to come.

Most people struggle to make themselves work out under the best of circumstances. For many, lockdowns reinforce our indolent inclinations and deter us from staying active, which will negatively impact peoples’ health over time.

Read: How to Motivate Yourself to Keep Working Out

There are also the more immediate adverse effects of lockdowns. 

Domestic violence has jumped 30 to 50% in some countries, such as France and Brazil, and scientists have noted a surge in substance abuse and suicide since lockdowns began.

Preliminary research conducted by scientists at the University of Bath shows lockdowns are associated with a higher risk of anxiety and depression, particularly among young children. Based on their statistical models, the researchers found that lockdowns tripled the risk of depression among kids. 

Given that depression is associated with worse grades, substance abuse, suicide, and criminal behavior later in life, it’s not a leap to say that we could be dealing with negative ripple effects from lockdowns for decades.

One particularly troubling side effect of COVID-19 lockdowns is the uptick in delays or indefinite postponements of preventative checkups and emergency medical treatments.

For example, a recent study conducted by scientists from the European Society of Cardiology estimates that about half of the people who’ve suffered heart attacks during lockdowns have avoided going to the hospital due to fear of catching COVID-19. 

Other research shows that most new cases of cancer are not being diagnosed, almost half of chemotherapy patients have missed treatments due to lockdowns, and that organ transplants have declined about 50% since the lockdowns went into effect.

And, of course, there are the staggering economic consequences. 

Many people have downplayed the economic impact of lockdowns, claiming that people’s lives are more important than the economy, but this is wrongheaded. People’s lives depend on the economy, and as lockdowns drag on, more and more experts predict that the global response to COVID-19 may end up taking more lives than the virus. 

For example, a study conducted by Dr. Ralph Keeney at the University of Southern California shows that on average, every $10-to-$24 million of lost income in the U.S. translates into about one additional death. 

While we still don’t know the total loss of income due to lockdowns, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that over 30 million people were unemployed during the worst of the pandemic. Many of these people will struggle to find work again, as businesses cut payroll to defray the costs of lockdown restrictions and lost customers.

Some experts from the University of Cambridge estimate lockdowns will cost the world economy between 30 and 80 trillion dollars, which could mean thousands of additional, unnecessary deaths.

Thus, it’s fair to at least ask the question, Has the current “cure” become worse than the disease? 

Read: My Guide to Staying Fit, Productive, and Sane While Self-Quarantined

At this point, more or less everyone agrees that steps should be taken to protect the most vulnerable from the virus (the elderly and infirm), but should the rest of us have to live under the same restrictions? 

That question brings us back to the Oslo study, where the researchers wanted to learn whether reopening gyms would increase the risk of catching or spreading COVID-19.

Let’s see what they found . . . 

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What Did the Researchers Do? 

The researchers recruited 3,928 men and women, aged 18 to 64, in the city of Oslo, Norway, who used to go to the gym before the lockdown went into effect on March 12, 2020.

Then, the researchers split them evenly into two groups: 

  1. A gym group, which could go back to the gym and follow their desired workout programs.
  2. A lockdown group, which stayed home and went about their “new normal” routines. 

For two weeks, the gym group was given access to five gyms in Oslo, and the lockdown group stayed home. 

Participants in both groups were tested for COVID-19 before and after the study, which began the last week of May and lasted until the second week of June.

The participants were also instructed on how to take self-administered COVID-19 tests. If they weren’t comfortable taking the test themselves, a researcher did it for them.

To avoid putting vulnerable people at risk, the researchers only recruited people who were considered to have a very low risk of developing COVID-19 symptoms. (That is, these people could still get the virus, but the chances of them developing life-threatening symptoms—or any— were fairly low.)

The five gyms involved in the study were only open to the study participants and implemented strict hygiene procedures, such as avoiding handshakes and bodily contact, maintaining at least six feet of distance when weightlifting and twelve feet when doing high-intensity cardio or fitness classes, and disinfecting all equipment after each use.

It’s also worth noting that the participants were not required to wear masks in the gym. (Although it’s possible some people wore them anyway, it’s unlikely, given how uncomfortable it is to wear them while training.)

Summary: In this study, researchers had one group of former gym goers return to the gym for two weeks and the other group stay home, and they tested both groups before and after to see if the gym group was more likely to catch or spread COVID-19. 

What Were the Study Results?


Should I still exercise during the COVID-19 pandemic?


 

Although the researchers recruited nearly 4,000 people for the study, only about 3,000 actually took the tests and stayed on board till the end (it’s normal for a certain percentage of participants to “drop out” of studies like this). 

Based on the average infection rate among the population of Oslo, the researchers predicted that about 1% of the participants would contract COVID-19. This would equal about 30 people (3,000 x 1% = 30). 

The actual number? 

One person tested positive for COVID-19 in the gym group, and no one tested positive in the lockdown group.

That’s an infection rate of 0.033%.

What’s more, the one person who tested positive in the gym group didn’t get it from the gym. In fact, the guy didn’t even go to the gym until the day he was tested for COVID-19. It turned out that he’d been in contact with two colleagues at work who had the virus, which is where he probably picked it up. He also didn’t experience any symptoms.

In other words, none who went to the gym in this study contracted COVID-19 from the gym. Their risk was the same as the people who stayed home—basically zero. 

To ensure they could identify any potential source of infection, the researchers also tested 90% of the staff working at the gyms during the study. None of them tested positive either.

Finally, the scientists also looked at data from COVID-19 tests on Oslo residents who weren’t involved in the study during the same period of time. In the first week of testing, 1.1% of these people tested positive, and in the second week, 3.6% tested positive. 

In other words, not only did no one in this study get COVID-19 from going to the gym, but the risk of infection was significantly lower than for the average population of Oslo.

As the researchers concluded, when gym goers were “provided good hygiene and social distancing measures, there was no increased COVID-19 spread at training facilities.”

Remember, too, that none of these people were required to wear masks during the study, so it’s hard to argue that masks are an essential part of preventing the spread of COVID-19 (at least in gyms).

Summary: This study found that, at least in Oslo, going to the gym did not increase the risk of contracting or spreading COVID-19. In fact, the gym goer’s risk of infection was lower than the average population, despite not wearing masks.

What Does This Mean for You?

Based on this preliminary study, it’s fair to say that your risk of getting COVID-19 from going to the gym is vanishingly low. 

What’s more, if you’re in good shape, your risk of getting COVID-19 at all is minimal, and even if you do, your risk of experiencing any symptoms, much less dying, is virtually nil. 

For example, research conducted at the Scripps Research Translational Institute shows about 40 to 45% of people who catch COVID-19 don’t experience any symptoms, and the percentage is probably even higher among healthy, fit people (the kind who tend to go to gyms).

Even if you just look at the general population, including those who are overweight, smoke, drink excessively, or have any number of other health problems, people under the age of 65 have about the same risk of dying from COVID-19 as they do from driving 10 to 80 miles per day. If you were to only look at healthy people, daily commuting is probably much more dangerous than COVID-19.

And although the risk of developing severe COVID-19 symptoms is higher among the elderly, this is mainly the case among people who are already ailing—not healthy older people.  

For instance, about four out of five people who’ve been hospitalized for COVID-19 already had a severe pre-existing health problem. In the U.S., 45% of all COVID-19 deaths have been among people living in nursing homes. 

Elderly people who are in good health—the kind most likely to go to the gym—have a much lower risk of dying from COVID-19 than their infirm counterparts. 

Now, at this point you may be thinking, Shouldn’t we stay safe, rather than sorry? 

Shouldn’t we keep gyms closed a little longer and see how this plays out?

And to that I would say three things: 

First, there’s very little evidence lockdowns are helping to reduce the spread of COVID-19. 

For example, a recent study conducted by scientists at Virginia Commonwealth University found no relationship between the amount of time a country spent in lockdown and the spread of COVID-19. Shutting down businesses and requiring people to stay home didn’t significantly reduce the spread of the virus. 

Second, maintaining the status quo isn’t safe, for all of the reasons you learned about a moment ago. 

The psychological, medical, and economic costs of lockdowns are astronomical, and have likely already caused thousands of deaths. 

And third, as the study on Oslo gym goers shows, reopening gyms is probably not going to increase the spread of the virus. When you take into account the many proven benefits of exercise, it would almost certainly be a net gain for individuals and for society.

Summary: If you’re under the age of 65, in good health, and not overweight, your risk of contracting COVID-19 from the gym, experiencing any symptoms, or dying, is virtually zero.

But, But, But . . . Isn’t This Study Fake News? 


gym COVID-19 safety


As you can imagine, some people were quick to poke holes in the Oslo study, downplay its findings, and magnify its limitations. 

For example, shortly after it was published, Slate ran an article titled “That One Study Does Not Mean It’s Safe to Go to the Gym.” 

In the article, the author quotes several statisticians, doctors, and other experts who raise some valid concerns about the results, which have also been repeated elsewhere. (The Slate author chose not to quote any of the study authors or others who might have a different opinion than the hand-picked experts, though.) 

The main criticisms of the study are . . . 

You can’t generalize the results to other groups of people

Some people, including several of those quoted in the Slate article, have claimed that because all of the participants were former gym goers, and likely healthier than the average person, we can’t apply the results to other groups of people. 

There’s a kernel of truth there. Of course, this was also the entire point of the study: to see how risky it would be for people to go back to the gym, which many media outlets have made out to be an exceptionally dangerous endeavour.   

In reality, it’s not. 

Not only did this study find it wasn’t dangerous for healthy people to return to the gym, it showed their risk of spreading the disease to others was essentially zero.

The study authors never said their results prove all businesses should reopen, but their findings certainly put the lie to the Slate article. 

While this is only one study, the results indicate that it is safe to go back to the gym.

Ironically, Nicole Carnegie, one of the doctors interviewed for the article, admits that the people who are most likely to go back to the gym are probably at a much lower risk of getting COVID-19 than the average person, which contradicts the refuting article and supports the original study. 

“People who want to go back to their gym or at least have a gym membership are probably a bit healthier or lower risk than the general population,” she said.

As you now know, that’s an understatement. 

The overall rate of COVID-19 in Norway is fairly low compared to most other countries, so we can’t apply the results to other places. 

This is true—Norway does have a relatively low rate of COVID-19 transmission—but this still doesn’t change the fact that according to this study, reopening gyms won’t raise the rate of transmission, either. 

If reopening gyms really posed the risk to society that the Slate article (and most other media outlets) claim, you’d expect gym goers to at least have an equal or higher risk of catching and spreading COVID-19 than the general public. 

In this study, the opposite was true. 

People who went back to the gym were just as safe as those who stayed home. 

The authors of the study also pointed out that several U.S. states, including Maine, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, had similar low rates of COVID-19 infections as Oslo did during the study period, so it’s reasonable to expect similar results from reopening gyms in similar places like these.

One valid criticism of this study is that it’s still going through the process of being officially published, thus hasn’t been peer-reviewed yet. Given that it’s currently the only study of its kind, though, it’s worth giving the results some credence.

While it’s true that every country, state, and locality will need to make a cost-benefit analysis of what and when they can reopen based on their unique population, customs, and circumstances, it’s still important to use the best available data to make these decisions. 

To date, this is the only study that has specifically looked at the risk (or lack thereof) of reopening gyms, and the results are clear: assuming you’re a healthy person under the age of 65, it probably is safe to go back to the gym. 

Summary: Despite claims to the contrary, it’s reasonable to assume that the results from this study would also apply to other cities—reopening gyms is probably safe in many places. 

The Bottom Line on Whether It’s Safe to Return to the Gym

Although we seem to be past the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic and some gyms have reopened, many people are worried that going back is still too risky.

Since March, the media has been blasting people with a firehose of articles, podcasts, and videos claiming that lockdowns save lives, that reopening poses an imminent threat to society, and that your risk of catching COVID-19 from the gym (or simply going outside) is still high.

According to this carefully designed study conducted by scientists at the University of Oslo, though, that’s not true—none of the people who went back contracted COVID-19 from the gym, and their risk of catching the virus was significantly lower than the rest of the population.

So, is it safe to go back to the gym? 

According to this study, and the body of evidence we have so far, if you’re under the age of 65, in good health, and not overweight, and you follow common-sense measures like social distancing and disinfecting your workout equipment, the answer is a resounding yes

If you liked this article, please share it on Facebook, Twitter, or wherever you like to hang out online! 🙂

What’s your take on gym reopening? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!

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