Coronavirus: how worried should we be about catching it at the gym?

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The threat of coronavirus isn’t just on public transport and at work, the gym is also a high risk area for germs. Stylist asked the experts if your fitness regime could put you at risk.

With fears mounting and the whisper of a nationwide shut-down on the wind, it’s difficult not to be concerned about the infamous COVID-19 virus sweeping the world. As infection rates climb daily and we all think a little more about our everyday movements, there are certain elements of our routines that perhaps need a little more consideration, like the gym. 

Although health officials have advised us to go about our normal routines (for now) with vigilance and a lot more hand washing, is our penchant for the gym a step too far? While adopting a regular exercise regime can actually aid our immune system, a public space where bodily fluids are the norm, can also be a hotbed for germs. “COVID-19 spreads in two predominant ways,” Dr Claudia Pastides explains.“The first is through inhaling virus-filled droplets that are released when infected people talk, cough and sneeze and the second is when people touch a surface with virus-filled droplets on it and then put their hand into their mouth, eyes or nose. Anywhere that is packed with people, all in close proximity to one another and touching surfaces, like the gym, is at an increased risk of the spread of infections.”

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As tempting as it is to simply arm yourself with anti-bac and hit the cross-trainer, Dr Ravi Tomar, GP at Portland Medical believes that the sell-out alcohol gel shouldn’t be the be-all end-all. “As the coronavirus can remain in the air for up to three hours and on surfaces for significantly longer, gym equipment is a prime culprit for picking up an illness,” he says. “Depending on whether the person before you has coughed onto their hands or worse, sneezed into the air, there can be moisture droplets containing a virus on anything from free-weights to elliptical handles or the buttons on the treadmill. 

Sadly, simply wiping the handles and surfaces won’t make a difference – to eliminate any droplets containing the virus, it’s essential that you’re using universal cleaning wipes that have antibacterial as well as antiviral properties. Most hand sanitisers including those alcohol-based can be helpful as they have anti-viral properties as well, but they should never be a substitute for good old fashioned hand washing. To stay protected, regularly wash your hands with soap for around 20 seconds – that’s Happy Birthday twice or the chorus of Stayin’ Alive once,” he says. 

While we love a good BeeGees track as much as the next girl, is it safer to just stay away altogether? “There’s a very good reason why gyms were considered high prevalence areas in China during the initial spread of this coronavirus,” says Dr Giuseppe Aragona, a Family Medicine Doctor and Medical Advisor at Prescription Doctor. “The initial research and government advice suggest that gyms are locations which may be spreading coronavirus. Public Health England’s self-isolation advice from last week recommends people to exercise from home or search for online classes. If you feel sick or have been diagnosed, it would be wise to avoid the gym to reduce the chance of spreading it to other people.”

And that goes for classes too. Whether it’s a boutique gym or a cheeky Pilates session on your way home from work, Dr Aragona believes that in this scenario, size doesn’t matter. “Any exercises classes require people to (usually) be within a close proximity of one another and, more importantly, breathing heavily and more frequently, which could encourage the transmission of coronavirus,” he says. Even though sweat itself doesn’t transmit COVID-19, Dr Ravi confirms that if anyone with the virus coughs, sneezes or wipes their nose on their sweaty hand or arm, can pass the virus from their mucus into their sweat and spread it that way. “Good ventilation may help reduce these droplets going onto surfaces or people extracting them out and away, but it is unlikely to make a huge difference, especially as they can travel up to 6 feet,” he says. 

Although the palpable sense of unease is gradually leading to social distancing, if keeping calm and carrying on is your mantra in times of distress, Dr Aragona stresses the importance of good hygiene if you do decide to go. “Don’t touch your face, wash your hands and use the antibacterial gels which are commonly found in gyms. Particularly when using a machine with plastic handlebars as the virus has been detected on plastic three days after contact,” he says. “The flimsy surgical masks people may be wearing don’t really prevent infection at all as it needs to be tight. If you do opt to wear a mask it may provide modest protection and delay spreading the virus further. But they are not a guaranteed way of protecting against infection.”

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