Is it safe to go back to the gym?

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Gyms have been allowed to open indoor facilities at limited capacity in every Bay Area county except for Sonoma, as coronavirus cases continue to drop across the region.

But gyms face a different exposure issue that other indoor facilities, like museums or hair salons, do not.

“I think what we really have to understand is it’s not just time, it’s how heavy you’re breathing,” said Dr. Richard Corsi, Dean of the Maseeh College of Engineering & Computer Science at Portland State University. “If you’re doing heavy exercise, especially if you’re doing aerobic exercise – you’re on a bicycle, you’re on a treadmill, you’re on an elliptical or anything like that – you’re going to be breathing a lot heavier, which means that you’re going to be bringing a lot more volume of air into your respiratory system and exhaling a lot more air.”

Corsi says data from the California Air Resources Board shows that a person who is vigorously exercising can inhale and exhale as much as 10-15 times the amount of air as someone resting. This means that exposure can happen much quicker in a gym than in other indoor spaces.

There are steps that gyms and gym goers can take to reduce the risk, such as improving ventilation and filtration systems, following proper sanitization procedures and requiring people to wear masks.

“If you lower the number of people inside the gym by 90%, what you’ve essentially done there is you’ve made it possible for people to maintain proper physical distancing, that’s good. You’ve reduced the probability that an infector will be in that space… that’s good,” said Corsi. “It’s not good enough for me.”

Corsi, a self-professed gym rat, says he still has not gone back to his gym.

“I’m so tempted but I’m not going back because I know it’s an environment where I breathe heavily, other people breathe heavily and there’s a lot of surfaces you touch.”

And while it can be difficult to do during exercise, Corsi says the more people who are wearing masks, the better.

“Indoors, six feet is insufficient distance if people aren’t wearing masks. Masks are crucial,” he said. “If you’re in an indoor environment other than your own home, everybody in that environment should be wearing a mask.”