Kelly Searle is an assistant professor of epidemiology and community health in the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health. She’s also a runner and biker. So when she says exercise is essential, that’s both a personal and professional statement. Now that stay-at-home orders are lifting, options for training have opened up, and athletes are more than ready to take advantage of them. But COVID-19 has not gone away, not even remotely. Just because gyms and beaches are open does not mean there’s no risk of virus transmission or exposure.
“There’s going to be a lot of personal responsibility,” Searle said. “Within local guidelines, you’ll need to mitigate the risks.”
There are, she said, some overarching factors that affect your risk of either transmitting the virus or being exposed to it—the amount of time you’re around other people, the ability to maintain at least 6 feet of distance, and whether you’re indoors or out.
Outdoor environments in which you’re training solo and passing others quickly with a wide berth are generally less risky. General risk reducers, Searle said, are avoiding public spaces and limiting the number of things you touch by bringing your own water bottle (instead of using a drinking fountain), bringing sanitizer or hand wipes in case you have to use a public facility, washing hands, and bringing a mask in case you encounter an unexpected crowd. Reducing risk and being responsible will take some planning and flexibility.
Searle broke down the risk factors in eight common training environments so you can make informed choices about how and where you get after it. We’ve listed them below in order from least risky to most risky to help you make a smart judgement call for your own comfort level:
Running solo on a street or sidewalk
Risky because: The only risk comes from encountering lots of other people without adequate space to pass.
Make it safer: Choose a less popular route or time of day. Be especially mindful of 6-foot distance at intersections and crosswalks.
Risky because: Bike paths may narrow, making it difficult to maintain distance or pass others with adequate space. Also, one side effect of loosened restrictions is an influx of less-experienced runners and riders.
Make it safer: Choose less popular routes and non-peak times of day. On weekends, go early. Announce your intention to pass—knowing the passee may not be familiar with the process—and be aware that you may have to slow down to accommodate others.
Risky because: Trails are narrow, and stepping off to allow passing distance may not be possible or recommended since it damages fragile environments.
Make it safer: Avoid popular trails, times of day, and weekends. If there are crowds at the trailhead, consider going elsewhere—explore something new, maybe tougher! Again, announce your intention of passing. Wear a mask that you can flip up if you have to pass on a narrow section, and pull down when you’re in the clear.
Risky because: Swimming alone in open water is probably a greater risk factor than virus transmission.
Make it safer: Swim with one or two others, rather than a group, and as always, maintain at least 6 feet between swimmers. Avoid public restrooms and changing houses, and be flexible—if the beach is crowded, have a backup spot in mind.
Risky because: The locker room is the hotspot—an indoor public space with people in close quarters touching common surfaces.
Make it safer: Minimize your time in the locker room (or skip it altogether if you can) and maintain distance between others. Ask the management how frequently the locker room is disinfected, and if they limit the number of people in the locker room at once. Chlorine in the water makes transmission unlikely while swimming, but each swimmer should have their own clearly marked lane (i.e., no circle swimming). If there’s no safety protocol, consider using a different pool or open-water venue.
Working out solo at the gym
Risky because: An indoor public space where people are exerting themselves (“Viral shedding increases with exertion,” Searle said, so gym users may require more than the recommended 6 feet of distance) and touching weights and equipment is one of the more difficult environments to make safe.
Make it safer: Find out what gym managers are doing to reduce risk. Disinfectant protocol is a big thing—each piece of equipment needs to be cleaned after each use. How often is the locker room cleaned? There should be a limited number of people in the gym and the locker room—is there a staff person managing that? If the gym does not have strong safety protocol, consider going elsewhere, or working out at home. Even if the gym has safety protocols in place, bring your own water bottle, mat, and hand sanitizer, don’t touch your face, and don’t go at peak time. Going right away in the morning means everything will have just been cleaned. If you’re lifting (instead of cardio), strongly consider wearing a mask.
Training group outdoors
Risky because: It’s a prolonged amount of time together during which it’s difficult to maintain distance. Each person in the group brings with them their stay-at-home network of contacts, substantially increasing your exposure.
Make it safer: “Even though it’s outdoors, I would be very hesitant to do a group run,” Searle said. Virtual races and training runs can provide the support and community of a group more safely.
Group exercise class indoors
Risky because: All the risk factors—indoors with groups of people working up a sweat in a confined public space for up to 90 minutes. As Searle put it: “This presents a very challenging scenario. At this point, it’s not advisable.”
Make it safer: Online classes are the safest option. To make a group exercise class even nominally safer, numbers would need to be very limited to allow at least ten feet between participants, everyone would need to bring their own equipment, and the room would need to be cleaned after each class. There would need to be incredible ventilation, limited or no access to a locker room, and no hands-on instruction at all.