Amid the growing rate of new COVID-19 infections in a country the size of India, there have been several debates as the government continues to relax the lockdown restrictions to be able to revive a fledgling economy as a result of the global pandemic.

More than 17 million people around the world have been infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus, while over 667,000 people have died due to the new coronavirus infection that was first reported in China late last year. In recent weeks, India has become one of the epicentres of the pandemic, with an alarming rate of new infections resulting in a total of over 1.5 million cases and nearly 35,000 deaths in the country alone.

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The government came out with Unlock 3.0 on 29 July, the third set of guidelines to ease restrictions from a state of complete lockdown that was first introduced in late March, despite the country reporting a record 52,123 new infections over the last 24 hours. Part of the businesses that could be opened based on the new set of guidelines is gymnasiums and fitness centres around the country, which had been ordered shut primarily due to the way the coronavirus spreads in a population.

There are some rules of course:

  • People over 65 years can't go to a gym yet
  • Masks are mandatory in the gym
  • Gym-goers must download the Aarogya Setu app on their phone
  • Everyone at the gym must maintain social distancing; that is, three to six feet of distance from everyone else at all times

It is evident that lockdown restrictions are going to ease up going forward, keeping the growing financial burden on businesses and people in mind. A large population of people have been staying indoors for the majority of the last four months, thanks to offices, malls, places of worship or educational institutions remaining shut. But are people going to flock to the gyms like before now that they would be reopened on 5 August?

  1. Gyms during COVID-19 pandemic
  2. Covid guidance for gyms
  3. Covid guide for gym goers

While India is only now going to allow the reopening of gyms and fitness centres based on the new set of guidelines from the government, such places of fitness have been open in countries around the world for some time. However, unlike some gymnasiums in the US which created individual pod-like structures to ensure norms of physical distancing, hygiene and other safety measures were maintained, India may not have the same facilities in such places across the country.

On top of that, people have been restricted in their movements for a long time, avoiding physical contact with other people owing to the way the virus can jump from a host to infect others. While many have adapted their routines to be able to work out at home, it hasn't been as smooth a transition for a lot more. 

Read more: Working out during lockdown

The primary way COVID-19 spreads is through droplet transmission, particularly in confined or enclosed areas. A study in South Korea—one of the early hubs of the disease's outbreak—found about 112 cases which were linked to dance fitness classes from 12 different fitness centres. The study, which was published in Emerging Infectious Diseases, found that the air in such enclosed spaces was able to transmit the infection quickly to many people. One of the reasons attributed to the transmission of the infection was also the fact that people breathe more heavily while exercising, making it even more likely for the virus to spread from one person to another.

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While it will become even more challenging for gym owners to be able to maintain a high level of hygiene to encourage people to return to exercising, many people are naturally going to be averse to rush back. Contrary to the above-mentioned study that highlighted the role of fitness centres in spreading the virus to many people, newer studies have suggested otherwise.

A study performed in Norway that has not been peer-reviewed yet, found that those who had been going to a gym were no more at risk of getting infected by the coronavirus than those who did not. More than 3,700 people were part of the study without any symptoms of COVID-19, and took place during an institutional lockdown in the country. While one half of the group was not allowed to visit the gym, the rest went to gyms ranging from twice a week to more than six times a week. Only one out of the 1896 people tested positive, and it was found that the person did not catch the infection in the gym, but elsewhere.

The findings of the study, however, did not suggest that there was a lesser chance of anyone catching the infection in a gym, simply because nobody from the control group was already infected by the virus, unlike the South Korean study.

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A survey of about 2,000 people conducted by a beverage company in the United States found about one in four people saying they may never go back to a gym, even after the pandemic is over. However, about 40% of the people in the survey wanted to return to the gym with the same frequency they used to visit earlier, while one in three people said they may not go to a gym as regularly as they would before.

A universal thought that has emerged from most studies and surveys suggests that people are more comfortable with exercising or working out in open spaces, as there is a lesser likelihood of catching the infection. Following preventive measures such as maintaining a six-feet distance between people, not being in confined spaces greatly reduces the chances of the spread of COVID-19.

Read more: How to keep yourself motivated to exercise during lockdown

Some others suggest that if you cannot do without your gym workout, especially since gyms have been inaccessible for more than four months, it is a good idea to call your gym well in advance to book a session and also understand what precautionary measures they have implemented to ensure the safety of their patrons. Not many people may be comfortable exercising with masks on their faces, and that may lead to other kinds of difficulty as well.

Carrying one's own disinfectant wipes and sprays, sanitizers, access to bathrooms and physical distancing measures must be followed strictly. All the frequent touch points, such as weighted plates, dumbbells, barbells, treadmills and other machines, must be wiped clean after each use. Group classes, at least for now, must be avoided. Sharing yoga mats, foam rollers or other equipment available in the gym should be avoided at all costs as they cannot be cleaned effectively.

Read more: Household items that can be used for fitness

It is better to not use shared lockers for the immediate future as people begin returning to gyms and fitness centres, and group classes must ensure physical distancing measures.

While some people may be itching to get back to their fitness routine from before or rejoin their weight-loss programme, it is advisable to listen to all the rules and guidelines in place, and ensure that your neighbourhood gym or fitness centre follows them religiously. However, it is best to wait for a little while longer to see the daily number of infections in your city drop, before deciding to get back to a full-blown fitness routine.

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