This was going to be the month. In January, you vowed to go back to the gym.
Then, Austin hit COVID-19 Stage 5 on Jan. 6 because of the omicron variant. Austin Public Health encouraged unvaccinated people or vaccinated people at high risk for severe disease to avoid all gatherings and public places. Fully vaccinated people with a low-risk for severe disease were encouraged to wear masks everywhere.
Could you really go back to the gym?
There are ways to participate in group exercise activities or go back to the gym. It starts with knowledge.
Understanding Stage 5: Austin returns to Stage 5 of COVID guidelines. What will change for you?
Ask what precautions your gym is taking. Have they added air filtration systems? Have they upped their cleaning protocols? Do they require masking? What about social distancing?
"Every gym is taking their own personal approach, says Dr. Suneet Singh, medical director for CareHive Health practice. Unlike the early days of the pandemic, when there were state requirements, there are no COVID-19 specific restrictions or guidelines required of gyms beyond standard health safety guidelines right now.
Most gyms are encouraging but not requiring masking and social distancing. Some have lowered class capacities during Stage 5 or placed stickers or tape 6 feet apart on the floor to help people social distance. Many also require staff to wear masks.
They also have more cleaning supplies available and encourage people to wipe down machines after their use or even go behind patrons to wipe down surfaces.
The risk of COVID-19 isn't high on surfaces. Instead, it's about the virus in the air when we breathe in and out or cough or sneeze.
Weighing the benefits of exercise
Singh sees the health benefits of exercise, especially when it comes to fighting off this virus. "A healthy immune system is going to be our best defense against any disease," he says, and exercise helps boost the immune system.
He also recognizes the mental health boost that exercise provides. "When we take away the gym, we're adding to mental health problems," he says.
People value the emotional support and the mental health benefits that come from being part of a community, says Sean Doles, the vice president of mission advancement for the YMCA of Austin. "They weigh the risks associated with omicron against the benefits and values," he says.
YMCA of Austin is seeing twice as many visits and new members this month as last January, though it's not at 2020 levels before the pandemic hit, Doles says. "We're at two-thirds of where we'd be on a 'normal' year," he says for new members joining and 60% of a normal year for visits.
Exercise with COVID-19 safety in mind
Singh, who goes to a gym regularly, encourages these precautions:
Get vaccinated and boosted. That is the best precaution for fighting severe disease.
Skip the gym if you don't feel well. Even if you think it's just allergies, sit it out until symptoms pass or you can get a COVID-19 test.
Wear an N95 or KN95 mask while working out. The N95 masks in particular are the ones doctors are using while treating COVID-19 patients, Singh says. They will protect you against breathing in COVID-19, he says, even if you're in a room with no one else wearing a mask.
It is not dangerous to work out while wearing these masks, he says. The only risk would be theoretical — that you could inhale the fibers from the mask and have an asthma attack. "That is not something seen very often at all," he says. "It is safe to wear a mask when performing any exercise."
If you wear a mask, you probably won't be the only one.
Rachel Quattrocchi, general manager at Pure Barre Southwest Austin, says her location recommend wearing masks, particularly in the high traffic areas, and about 20% to 30% of members are now wearing masks during the entire workout. Some people returned to wearing them once we reached Stage 5; some people have worn them throughout.
"Most of our members don't mind one way or the other," she says. "Workout for the body is connected to the mind. We want everyone to feel safe and protected and cared for."
Wipe down surfaces before and after you use equipment. While the risk is not about COVID-19, there is a risk of other diseases that live on surfaces longer. Plus, it's the polite thing to do.
Use hand sanitizer. By now we've learned that we shouldn't touch our faces, but we just can't help ourselves. Hand sanitizer helps us as well as people near us who might touch what we touched.
Use a towel to wipe sweat off your face and body instead of your hand.
Social distance at least 6 feet away from people. If people are breathing heavily, you'll want to increase that distance because they could be expelling more virus particles as they breathe harder. If you are using fitness machines or weights, try to leave machines between you and the next person.
Know the crowd conditions before you go. Some gyms like Austin's Planet Fitness locations post in an app or on their website how many people are currently inside that location. You also can call ahead and ask. Before and after work tend to be more crowded times that you might want to avoid. Try to avoid crowded classes as well.
Pick outdoor activities or spaces if possible. The YMCA, for example, has set up outdoor classrooms. Some boot camps are only held outside. You also can do your own biking, hiking, running or walking outside. Do continue to wear a mask or have one handy in case you cannot social distance in an outdoor class or on the trail.
Pick water activities. Chlorine inactivates the virus, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't take precautions. Social distance while doing water aerobics or swimming in lap lanes. Do not wear a mask while in the water, but do wear one when you get out of the water. Choose an outdoor pool rather than an indoor one, if possible.
Take online classes or do exercise videos or apps. The YMCA of Austin continues to offer online classes as an option. "Our new reality is this mix," Doles says, of both online and in-person classes. Some people really feel more comfortable staying at home, but for others, they need to be in-person.
Doles says he's seen the comfort with returning to the YMCA increase with time. "People have a different attitude now," he says. "There's not as much fear, and they really see the value in what a place like the Y can be."
This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Ready to go back to the gym? Here's how to do it in a COVID-safe way