COVID-19 at the Gym: Every Single Participant in This Cycling Class Got Coronavirus

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This week, new research provides a stark reminder that COVID-19 and the gym don’t mix particularly well. Indoor group fitness classes are actually a pretty effective way to transmit the coronavirus, according to two new studies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Both of the studies looked at COVID-19 outbreaks that took place at fitness facilities in Honolulu and Chicago during summer 2020—including one cycling class where every participant ended up sick. That outbreak was detected in a Hawaii Department of Health investigation. For the investigation, contact tracers and case investigators linked 21 cases of COVID-19 to two fitness instructors who taught several classes in June and July 2020. They taught while they were infectious but before they had noticeable symptoms. 

One of those instructors taught a 60-minute high-intensity indoor cycling class just four hours before his symptoms started later that evening. The instructor and students were all stationed at least six feet apart, but none wore masks while working out, per the facility’s protocol, and the windows and doors were closed. The instructor was facing the class, “shouting instructions and encouragement,” the report says, and, presumably, spreading infectious respiratory droplets containing the virus. Over the next week, all 10 people who attended the class tested positive for COVID-19. 

Of those infected participants, one was also a fitness instructor, who would later be admitted to the ICU for a severe case of COVID-19. But before his symptoms came on, he taught multiple classes, unmasked, at a different facility—including a personal training session and three small kickboxing classes just 12 hours before his symptoms appeared. Of the 11 people who were exposed that day (five of whom were also exposed to the instructor two days earlier), 10 would test positive for COVID-19 over the next few days. The two students who did wear masks and one of the instructor’s four personal training clients the previous day also tested positive. 

Another CDC study looked at cases connected to a Chicago gym operating at 25% capacity during the last week of August 2020. Out of 81 people who attended high-intensity indoor classes that week (with most going to several), 55 would be diagnosed with COVID-19. Participants brought their own mats and weights, underwent symptom screening and temperature checks on arrival, and maintained six feet of distance—but were not required to wear masks while working out. Out of 58 respondents, 76% reported they wore their masks infrequently. (Perhaps more shocking: 22 attendees who would test positive for COVID-19 went to a class on either the same day or after their symptoms started—including three who went to a class on the same day or after getting a positive test result. But it’s possible that some could have gone to the class earlier in the day before noticing symptoms later in the day.)

Neither report is surprising, of course, given what we know about the spread of COVID-19 and the gym. In both case studies, public health experts found that a combination of poor mask wearing, high-respiratory exertion, lack of ventilation in an enclosed space, and extended close contact were among the probable factors facilitating transmission. All of that lines up with what we already know about the coronavirus, which spreads mainly via respiratory droplets.

The safest way to work out during this pandemic is at home or outside (by yourself or only with the other members of your household). And although the risk for exposure from attending a fitness class with other people will never be zero, as SELF reported, it is possible to make the scenario safer by moving it outside (or otherwise ensuring sufficient airflow) and making sure everyone uses proper physical distancing and wears masks.

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