Working out while staying safe during the coronavirus outbreak

By American Heart Association News

Wavebreakmedia/iStock, Getty Images
(Wavebreakmedia/iStock, Getty Images)

As people are advised to stay home and as the list of gathering places being closed to limit the spread of the coronavirus grows, people might find themselves shut out of their gym, or choose not to go.

But that doesn't mean they should give up on the idea of fitness entirely, trainers say.

And people who do find places to work out in the weeks ahead will want to be aware that gyms can be germy – and they should take steps to protect themselves.

First things first: Older adults and people with heart disease, diabetes or lung disease face a heightened risk of serious complications from the coronavirus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says people in those groups should make sure they keep their distance from other people and stay home as much as possible.

"Events of any size should only be continued if they can be carried out with adherence to guidelines for protecting vulnerable populations, hand hygiene, and social distancing," the CDC says. "When feasible, organizers could modify events to be virtual."

Advice can change quickly, and the CDC has the latest. Your state or local health department might have more. Public health officials have urged people to avoid any gatherings of 10 people or more. Some states have called on gyms, as well as cafes and restaurants, to close. In other areas, some gyms are temporarily closed as part of the effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Mark Dalman, assistant professor at the College of Podiatric Medicine at Kent State University in Independence, Ohio, has studied how germy gyms can be.

He led research last year looking for a potentially dangerous type of bacteria called Staphylococcus aureus in 16 fitness centers. Researchers found it on more than 38% of the surfaces tested.

Of course, bacteria are not the same as viruses. The latest coronavirus, which has been called COVID-19, is a potentially deadly respiratory illness. The CDC thinks it is passed between people who are in close contact and through droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

But certain viruses can still lurk on gym equipment. Dalman said that because they don't need food or sunlight, they can persist longer than bacteria. And gyms offer plenty of hiding places.

In his study looking at bacteria, Dalman found the most staph-laden surface was the medicine ball. The least-contaminated surfaces were bathroom levers and door handles.

Wood, leather, many gloves – "anything porous like that, there's a pretty good chance that a viral particle could be inside of the mesh," he said. "It could never get cleaned up, never get wiped away."

So, in the gym – or anywhere – one of the concerns is touching your eyes, face or mouth, Dalman said. "You might as well just lick a whole gob of that viral particle."

Dalman described coronavirus as being surrounded by a layer that's like a winter jacket. "It's called an envelope, and it helps protect them, keeps them from being easily recognized. It also has all of the things that make them infectious."

Disrupt that jacket with, say, the alcohol in hand sanitizer, and that virus can't infect you.

So, proper cleaning of equipment can go a long way. But he emphasized it has to be done properly. Read the instructions on a bottle of disinfectant, he said. It usually works on nonporous surfaces only and needs to stay in place for at least three to 10 minutes before being wiped up.

But Steven Zinder, associate professor of athletic training at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, said gym-goers shouldn't rely on someone else to protect them.

"You can only take care of yourself, and you can only guarantee what you do yourself," said Zinder, who helped write guidance for the National Athletic Trainers Association on how to prevent the spread of skin diseases. "There's no reason that you can't wipe down the machine before you use it. And there's no reason that you can't be bringing your own towels, your own water bottles, your own yoga mats."

He's a believer in basic hygiene: Showering thoroughly with soap immediately after a workout and keeping clean clothes in a bag separate from your workout gear can help keep you from spreading germs.

Many gyms had responded to the coronavirus by emphasizing their cleaning routines. And the CDC said properly treated pools should not pose a risk. Still, for many Americans, it might be weeks before they see the inside of a gym.

If you can't get to the gym, you shouldn't give up on your workout, Zinder said. It's easy to find a way to work out at home. The outdoors, as long as you maintain the recommended social distance from others, can be a place to walk, jog and bicycle.

"The only limiting factor in working out at home is creativity," he said. "And these days, you don't even have to be creative. You just have to have an internet connection. Because there are so many videos and so many programs that you can download."

And, of course, there are ways to exercise and move more around the house without having to be online.

Steve Collett, an Atlanta-area exercise physiologist and health coach, said people who work regularly with a trainer can find ways to keep in contact.

"If they can't come in and physically see you, at least they can touch base by phone or by text so that they know that they're still there. We're still going to help them, and they're still accountable."

Collett, who has owned fitness studios in the past, is adapting to closed facilities by working with people outside and in parking lots.

Almost all of his clients are continuing with their routines. He thinks that's for the best.

One thing that hasn't changed: He says for his entire 30-year career, he's preached the power of basics – good nutrition, enough sleep and regular exercise – to boost the immune system. "The people who have strong immune systems have a far better chance of fighting off any type of disease or virus than someone who does not follow those principles."

Editor's note: Because of the rapidly evolving events surrounding the coronavirus, the facts and advice presented in this story may have changed since publication. Visit for the latest coverage, and check with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health officials for the most recent guidance.

If you have questions or comments about this story, please email [email protected].

If unusual circumstances are adding to your stress level, you can take steps to decompress and get a handle on your anxiety. Try our tips and techniques to help you feel calmer and more centered in trying times.

More Tips to Be Well Together

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If you’re not usually a homebody, being at home more can be challenging for you and your family. Try to avoid the temptation to overdo the screen time.

Here are some more simple tips for fitness activities that almost anyone can do. Choose the ones that work for your circumstances and comfort level.

Fitness fans who are avoiding a crowded gym or popular exercise class can create a great at-home circuit workout.

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Steering clear of crowds? Stock up on healthy, affordable staples. (Always compare nutrition labels and choose options with the least amount of added salt and sugar.)

Here are some suggestions:

  • Canned, frozen and dried fruits and vegetables
  • Canned fish and meats like light tuna or white-meat chicken packed in water
  • Frozen chicken breasts (they’re safe for up to a year when stored airtight in a freezer set to zero degrees or below)  
  • Dried or canned beans and legumes
  • Whole grains like oats, brown rice and quinoa 
  • Dried herbs and spices

Remember: Shelled eggs are safe for 3-5 weeks, and unopened egg substitute is safe for up to a year in the refrigerator.

More Staples

Find tasty dishes you can make with shelf-stable ingredients on our Recipe site.

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If you have a chronic condition, talk to your health care provider and be extra vigilant about safety and cleanliness.

Here’s more information on precautions patients can take

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