Warm up, shut up, wipe: how to stay healthy in the gym

People have embraced novel ways of staying fit during the coronavirus lockdown, with an NBN survey finding that one in two Australians who worked from home have also tried online fitness classes. But those who rely on equipment for their workouts or group classes to motivate them, will no doubt be over the moon when their gym is allowed to reopen as restrictions ease.

In South Australia and Queensland gyms reopened on 1 June, joining the Northern Territory and Western Australia where gyms were already operating. In New South Wales, gyms will reopen from 13 June.

However, extra precautions must still be taken in these closed spaces especially since working out means shared equipment, sweating and heavy breathing.

Staying fit is great for physical and mental health and wellbeing, says virologist Dr Sacha Stelzer-Braid from the University of New South Wales. Like many others, she relies on the gym for motivation. “If you’re like me, I have to have someone to tell me what to do,” she says.

But there will be an element of risk while Covid-19 is still potentially lurking. Research suggests people can still spread the virus while asymptomatic, and it just takes one person to ignite it in a super-spreading environment like the gym.

“That’s why the authorities have put off gym opening,” says professor Mary-Louise McLaws, an infectious disease epidemiologist also from UNSW, who has been studying Covid-19. “Because when you’re exerting yourself, you’re really pushing the particles out from the lower part of your lungs and you’re really breathing very deeply.” McLaws notes that saliva droplets are the most potent source of infection, although indirect spread can also occur.

As Australians start venturing out, it is vital to be kind and thoughtful to others as well as protecting ourselves.

Most importantly, Stelzer-Braid and McLaws urge people to stay away if they have any signs of feeling unwell. “This old idea that we had of pushing through a minor virus or feeling slightly off and go for a run or … the gym to sweat it out, that’s going to have to be a pre-Covid mentality,” says McLaws. “Because it’s not good for your health anyway.”

Dr Chance Pistoll, a clinician and lecturer at the University of Melbourne, agrees. “The first thing is don’t go to the gym if you’re unwell. If you get any inkling that you’ve got a cold or anything that could be Covid-related, then hang tight.”

Next, would-be exercisers should heed instructions – gyms will have physical distancing measures in place, such as limiting the number of people who attend via staggered sessions or set bookings. Physical distance should also be maintained while you exercise.

For those undertaking hardcore workout in classes, or on equipment like rowing machines or bicycles, it’s ideal to have everyone looking the same way, and it is best to avoid speaking.

It’s also prudent to limit time spent at the gym and to shower at home rather than in communal spaces when possible. Stelzer-Braid suggests bringing two towels, one dedicated to wiping your face and the other for lying on. She recommends using disinfectant wipes to clean equipment. You should also avoid touching your face and, of course, wash your hands before and after your workout.

“We say it so many times, but it’s really, really effective because the virus has this lipid layer on the outside which is basically inactivated by soap and water.”

Stelzer-Braid also recommends minimising the things you bring along. She suggests a post-Covid gym kit should consist of just a couple of towels, hand rub and wipes, and a pre-filled water bottle. When you get home, you can limit the risk of spreading the virus by leaving shoes outside and putting towels and gym clothes straight in the washing machine.

“I mean, that might be overcautious,” she says. “But I work in a hospital so I’m coming from that perspective of minimising the amount of things that you might bring that have contact with the virus.”

Pistoll emphasises to his clients the importance of eating a healthy, balanced diet and staying socially connected to maintain a healthy frame of mind – these general lifestyle measures help keep immune systems healthy.

As far as keeping fit, if you’re unsure about venturing back to the gym yet, but love group dynamics, other options include well-ventilated spaces such as outdoor classes and bootcamps – which are already taking place in all Australian states.