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CDC: If You’re Going to the Gym, Wear a Face Mask

woman exercising with a mask

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Key Takeaways

  • Two reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention linked COVID-19 outbreaks to gyms.
  • In most cases, people who did not wear masks infected others.
  • Experts stress the importance of wearing a mask in gyms and taking other precautions like attending outdoor fitness classes instead of indoor classes.

Officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are urging people to wear masks and follow other COVID-19 safety protocols when they work out after new research tied outbreaks to gyms in Chicago and Honolulu.

The CDC released data in late February that detailed how 21 COVID-19 cases in Honolulu were linked to an infected fitness instructor who taught classes at three gyms. The instructor, a 37-year-old man, taught yoga and high-intensity indoor cycling classes at two facilities up to two days before he developed COVID-19 symptoms, and classes at one gym more than two days after he developed symptoms. Neither the participants nor the instructor wore masks.

Another instructor, a 46-year-old man, taught five personal training and small group kickboxing sessions with no masks two days before he developed symptoms of fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath, and fatigue. He was later hospitalized and admitted to the intensive care unit. The instructor ended up infecting 10 of 11 people he had close contact with.

The CDC's Chicago case report identified 55 COVID-19 infections from 81 people who took a high-intensity class at a gym between August 24 and September 1. Twenty-two of the participants had COVID-19 and went to the class on or after the day they developed symptoms, and three went to class on the same day or day after they received a positive test result for the virus. The report also notes that 76% of attendees wore masks “infrequently,” including 84% of those who had COVID-19. Gym members had to wear a mask outside of class but were allowed to take off their masks during class.

The CDC concluded in the Chicago report that, in order to lower the risk of spreading COVID-19 in gyms, “attendees should wear a mask, including during high-intensity activities when greater than or equal to six feet apart.” The CDC also says that gyms “should enforce physical distancing, improve ventilation, and encourage attendees to isolate” after developing symptoms or receiving a positive COVID-19 test.  

What This Means For You

Experts say it's best to avoid the gym right now if you're not vaccinated, but if you are attending anyway, wearing a mask is necessary for protecting yourself and others from COVID-19. If you're planning on attending a fitness class, make sure it's outside to ensure social distancing and good ventilation.

Gyms and Transmission

Some gyms across the country are taking safeguards to help protect customers, but not all require masks. A spokesperson for Anytime Fitness, for example, tells Verywell that the company has “advised our owners to comply with mask policy set forth by local health officials,” adding that employees are “strongly encouraged to wear masks and gloves at all times.” And, while Crunch gyms require that their staff wear masks, the company says on its website that it “recommends” members do the same.

But, even though it can be difficult to wear a mask during a workout, doctors stress the importance of the practice.

“As we best understand transmission of COVID-19, it is through tiny droplets and aerosols we create when we breathe or speak," Lewis Nelson, MD, chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, tells Verywell. "The harder we breathe or the louder we speak, the more droplets we produce and the more air we have behind them to propel them further. Outbreaks have occurred in choirs from singing and, as these latest reports highlight, at gyms, due to heavy breathing and grunting. Masks are critical in this setting to prevent transmission, and the often-quoted six-foot rule may not provide sufficient distancing.”

Irvin Sulapas, MD, a primary care sports medicine physician and assistant professor of family and community medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, tells Verywell that masks are the “best way to limit spread to others and gym equipment” if a person is infected. “Wearing a mask can prevent spread to other people,” he adds.

Best COVID-19-Safe Gym Practices

Richard Watkins, MD, an infectious disease physician and a professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Verywell that it’s really best to avoid the gym entirely, if possible. “I recommend avoiding going to gyms, at least until fully vaccinated,” he says. "But, if one chooses to go, then social distancing, hand washing, and mask-wearing can decrease the risk of getting COVID-19 there.”

Nelson acknowledges that it can be tough to wear a mask when you're breathing heavily. "Cotton and surgical masks get wet from heavy breathing and should be changed when wet," he says. "Wearing multiple layers of high-quality masks will be more effective than a single mask, but any quality mask is better than no mask."

Masking is especially crucial in group classes. “The more people in a group, the more likely that one of them has COVID and can transmit it,” Nelson says.

Experts say that, ideally, for COVID-19 prevention classes would be held outdoors. “That may be the only time, with proper distancing, that maskless exercise can be safely done,” Nelson says.

Overall, Sulapas recommends being mindful of COVID-19 risk when you work out. “Don't let a pandemic stop you from exercising, but we need to do it in a safe manner,” he says.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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  1. Groves L, Usagawa L, Elm J, et al. Community transmission of SARS-CoV-2 at three fitness facilities — Hawaii, June–July 2020. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2021;70:316–320. doi:10.15585/mmwr.mm7009e1

  2. Lendacki F, Teran R, Gretsch S, Fricchione M, Kerins J. COVID-19 outbreak among attendees of an exercise facility — Chicago, Illinois, August–September 2020. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2021;70:321–325. doi:10.15585/mmwr.mm7009e2