The text from a friend blared a harsh headline: “More than 100 infections linked to fitness classes in South Korea, study finds.”
The link took me to a story about a study that found that one four-hour dance workshop on Feb. 15 in South Korea led to the spread of COVID-19 to 112 people. Of the 27 instructors who participated in the workshop and were not showing symptoms at the time of the event, eight later tested positive. The instructors then spread the virus back at their home gyms for a total of 112 cases. The study was published in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.
My friend then texted me: “Has to be hard supporting an industry that could get people sick.”
Perhaps to lessen the harshness of that text, she then sent me the following text: “Health clubs went from all good, fabulous life benefits to potential virus spreaders. It’s like everything is opposite.”
I sat with that for a moment. The story came out just a week after some states had started to reopen. As of this morning, every state is now reopened at least partially, many including the reopening of health clubs. The last thing this industry needs is a study showing that gyms spread COVID-19.
But looking at the study further, I realized it focused on spread that happened before the world knew much about preventing the spread of COVID-19. Still, many people won’t dig that deep into the story. They’ll just read the headline. And they’ll remember all the studies they’ve read in the past about how germ-filled gyms are.
Search the Internet for germs and gyms, and you’ll find plenty of articles published prior to the COVID-19 pandemic sharing how dirty gyms are:
- Examining Gym Cleanliness
- Diversity of Bacterial Communities of Fitness Center Surfaces in a U.S. Metropolitan Area (December 2014)
- Characterizing the molecular epidemiology of Staphylococcus aureus across and within fitness facility types (January 2019)
- Your gym is teeming with invisible members: Germs. Here’s how to avoid them. (July 2019)
- Germs at the Gym (October 2012)
Despite these studies, other studies show the benefits of exercise on people’s physical and mental health. Many studies have shown the positive effects of exercise in helping to prevent non-communicable diseases, such as cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease:
- Health benefits of physical activity: the evidence (March 2006)
- Everyday exercise has surprisingly positive health benefits (January 2018)
- 10 Years After an Exercise Study, Benefits Persist (April 2019)
- Regular exercise changes the brain to improve memory, thinking skills (April 2018)
- Does Exercise Really Make You Healthier? (January 2009)
And a few studies show that exercise may also have a positive effect on boosting immunity to communicable diseases although other studies question that, both sides of which are encapsulated in this article, “How Exercise May Affect Your Immunity,” published in the New York Times.
But still, the idea of gyms as a dirty place persists for many. A Washington Post survey and a RunRepeat survey found that a majority of Americans were hesitant to return to their health clubs. These surveys contradict results of an MXM survey of health club members that shows the majority do plan to return.
Dr. Gavin Harris, MD, who is an infectious diseases physician and critical care medicine fellow at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, told Health.com that returning to the gym right now is a bad idea from a biologic and physiologic perspective because the droplets that spread the coronavirus can last on shared surfaces, such as gym equipment, for days and because gyms are enclosed spaces, which increases the risk for exposure.
But Dr. Paul Sax, medical director of the division of infectious diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, told Time magazine: “The gym is not a place that’s necessarily riskier than other communal areas. I wouldn’t say there’s anything particular about people sweating that makes them more contagious.”
And the article goes on to share that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that contracting COVID-19 from surface contamination is less of a concern than contracting it from respiratory droplets in the air. People generally overestimate their risk of contracting diseases in shared spaces, the CDC said.
But those insights may not be well-known by a lot of club members and potential future members. That’s why it’s so important that health club, YMCA, university rec center or parks and rec facility operators share with the public all of the existing and new cleaning and disinfecting protocols and safety measures that they have been implementing. If they don’t, the past impression of gyms as dirty places will continue, and the ability to attract back members and bring in new ones will be diminished.
To help you, we shared some of the new protocols in place at some club companies in this article, “Equinox, SoulCycle, Life Time, Others Release Reopening Protocols.”
To gain more insights about cleaning and disinfecting protocols, we invite you to watch Club Industry’s two on-demand town halls on this topic, “Allaying Member Fears With Good Cleaning Protocols After Reopening.” Part one of the town hall was sponsored by The Abs Company, Fitness EMS, Go Charge and Gym Valet. Panelists for that town hall were Neil Lardon, director of building facilities at East Bank Club; Kate Golden, director of health and wellness operations at Newtown Athletic Club; Steve Ayers, multi-club franchisee at Workout Anytime; and Craig Pepin-Donat, executive vice president and partner at Crunch Franchise. It can be viewed on-demand here.
Part two of the town hall was sponsored by Fitness EMS, Volt Guard and Zogics. Panelists were Blair McHaney, owner of Worx and CEO of MXM; Eddie Johnston, director of operations, Chelsea Piers Connecticut and regional operations director, Chelsea Piers Fitness; Maria Turco, founder of Honor Yoga and Dr. Bruce Sherman, Ph.D., inventor and president of Gym Valet. Part two of the town hall can be viewed on-demand here.