Health

I Miss the Gym Like Hell, but I'm Not Going Back Anytime Soon

In a choice between working out in a heavy-breathing crowd where everyone’s mask is dangling from one ear and working out at home: Good equipment is not worth people’s lives.

by Casey Johnston
May 13 2020, 6:16pm

Illustration by Elnora Turner

I may be getting ahead of myself here as the state I live in is still under a shelter-at-home order and gyms/recreational facilities are closed, but it looks like our physical distancing, working from home, and other measures have flattened the curve. Our governor will be announcing plans to slowly re-open businesses/industry in early May, opening businesses in the reverse order that he shut them down, so it looks like gyms may be re-opened by the end of May/early June.

I'm curious as to what you think gyms are going to look like when they start opening and we can get back to them? Do you think it's going to be a mad rush (like New Year's) or are people going to be cautious about going out and potentially exposing themselves to the virus? Will there be hours set aside for just seniors? What does the layout and spacing of gyms look like? Cardio machines and benches spaced 6' apart? Gym staff constantly cleaning equipment? Gym staff on the floor enforcing no bro hugs, handshakes, high fives? What are going to be the dress norms? Is everyone going to wear face masks while working out? Gloves? Is it still "group exercise" when physical distancing only allows 3-4 in a studio? --Jessie

This is a hard question for two reasons: One, this is an event that is unprecedented in our modern times; the last time we had a situation like this, there were no “gyms,” and we didn’t know then all that we know now about how gross gyms are. Two, how we are dealing with the situation is changing in response to how things are going, and “how we are dealing” is changing constantly, so we are experiencing change to the power of three at all times. So what will happen with gyms, like almost every aspect of life, has become one big, sweaty, gummy ball of “I don’t know.” But we can look at what gyms are trying to do now that some states are reopening, and whether that will reasonably make anyone feel safe.

I can hardly think of a worse kind of place to be reopened in a situation like this than a gym, honestly, short of somewhere you’d go to voluntarily have someone spit in your open mouth. Going to a gym inherently involves using its bathrooms or locker rooms, for most people, which are very enclosed spaces within already enclosed spaces. It involves heavy breathing in an enclosed (though often ventilated) space, a situation that at least one outbreak in South Korea indicates is a risky spreading situation. Gyms also involve touching other things a lot of other people have touched, and sweaty faces are extremely hard to resist wiping with those hands you just touched stuff with. Gyms are gross!! This is not a controversial opinion.

You might be reading all this and thinking, “Things could be fine if gym locations just sufficiently space out ellipticals and clean everything really thoroughly and regularly. No problem, I will wear a mask and only wipe my face with my towel and keep all my stuff with me and use hand sanitizer and pee before I go so I don’t have to use the bathroom.

But even as we have lofty ideas about how well we personally will handle this, we can’t control people who are lazy and don’t care. We also can’t be one hundred percent sure even perfect compliance will keep germs from spreading around, and in the event that they do, our country as a whole is still not equipped to deal with outbreaks: tests are still, STILL (months into this process!) not widely available; we don’t have contact tracing to track and manage spread in place; people aren’t responsibly quarantining; and health care is not widely available or free.

This means that we not only have rampant infections and unnecessarily high mortality rates, but the capacity for infection rates to swing wildly from place to place and from relatively low numbers to extremely high ones, without us really understanding why it’s happening or having adequate tools to manage it. If someone in the U.S. gets sick—if a gym customer gets sick from another customer, or a gym staff member gets sick from a customer—they get to play roulette with the privatized healthcare system.

In place of the measures above, areas that are reopening in the U.S. have become deeply invested in coronavirus theater that’s supposed to, I guess, take the place of actual infrastructural support. As VICE reported this week, most gyms are participating in some kind of mask-and-santizing-and-distancing dance, but experts are extremely doubtful any of it will ultimately be helpful or that the measures are being executed effectively. Let it never be said we learned nothing from 9/11; at minimum, we learned that the American government has a comical capacity for instituting security theater (hello, TSA) and the American public has an absolutely staggering tolerance for suffering through it, despite that it’s not actually very helpful or protective of anyone.

Here are some of the measures being implemented by some reopened gyms in the state of Georgia, along with how the measure is probably not really that helpful and/or would make me personally uncomfortable:

  • Temperature checks at the door: the virus can be spread by asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic people who have no fever.
  • Testing for the virus on entry: results for the tests take days; while this could be useful for tracking spread, it won’t prevent someone carrying the virus from going inside and infecting people.
  • Required masks: people already half-ass their mask-wearing in the real world, on average. I simply don’t trust a bunch of sweaty people breathing hard to keep their masks in place, and partially removing a mask or putting it on and taking it back off is not a lot better than not wearing one at all.
  • Hourly cleanings by gym staff: People removing their masks, touching their masks, breathing, coughing, and then touching all the equipment render this almost completely useless.
  • Asking people to clean their own equipment: if you’ve been in a gym before, you know virtually no one cleans their equipment already; I extremely doubt this is the occasion that people will rise to and see their way to wiping down their elliptical.
  • Limited capacity/appointment bookings: This is maybe the most encouraging measure, but even a gym limited to 25 or 50 percent capacity could still be pretty crowded (one expert told VICE they’d be dismayed to see more than 10 people in a room together), and capacity limitation doesn’t mean you won’t want to use a piece of equipment right after someone else, or that they won’t hover less than six feet away from you while they’re waiting for you to be done, breathing at you the whole time.

There are other countries that have reopened businesses like gyms, or plan to soon. But those countries are managing the spread and number of people who have died from coronavirus a whole lot better than us. Take South Korea as an example, where gyms have reopened, but only 259 people total have died there out of a population of 51 million, compared to the U.S.’s 82,000 deaths and counting. Coronavirus test results still take at least 24 hours and sometimes as long as a week in the U.S., while South Korea, which reopened some businesses at the end of April, is delivering results within seven hours. South Korea has a robust contact tracing system involving smartphone apps, ankle bracelets, and dormitories for people to quarantine if they are sick (or even if they aren’t sure if they are sick), where they will receive care packages of food and wellness items from case workers. By contrast, the U.S. has… uh… a president asking whether we can kill a coronavirus infection if “we hit the body with a tremendous, whether it’s ultraviolet or just very powerful light.”

Germany, which has nationalized health care and has also done a vastly better job of managing coronavirus than the U.S. (7,700 deaths), has not reopened its gyms, but plans to do so on May 15, with many similar measures to those listed above, as well as equipment spaced six feet apart. Germany also got up to speed with widely-available tests extremely quickly. Its government also reimburses businesses trying to avoid layoffs for two-thirds of employees’ salaries, so they don’t have to choose between going bankrupt or leaving their employees destitute, and reopening their businesses as cesspools for spreading disease.

This all hasn’t stopped some states from already allowing—effectively forcing—gyms to reopen by putting people under threat of losing their unemployment. Gym owners aren’t necessarily reopening because they think they can do so safely; they have to open their doors and employees have to show up for shifts, or else.

As far as whether anyone should go to their reopened gym, this pandemic has produced an avalanche of tortured consumer decisions: Is it meaner to buy food for delivery from a restaurant in these times, forcing restaurant workers to show up and cook for you, potentially without safety protections from their employers, and a delivery guy to trek out into the world to bring something to your door? Or would it be worse to NOT buy stuff from them, denying them money that may contribute to them going out of business? There are no easy answers; in a better society, those people would be able to stay safely out of work and be supported by their government, so we wouldn’t feel this weird responsibility to try and guess for them which is the lesser of the two evils.

Now we’re facing a similar choice with gyms, when even some huge chains have closed locations or filed for bankruptcy. If they’re staffed and ready for people to come work out, is it worse to show up, or not go? Gyms are trickier because of the memberships, and whether you show up doesn’t actually affect their bottom line (if anything, it’s better for it). But if, say, your gym had put your membership on hold before now, and it’s reactivating it now that it’s reopened, your hand is being forced by the political authority forcing the reopening.

So long as we don’t have testing, contact tracing or a vaccine, but we do have a continually teetering healthcare system and resources, the safest thing would be not to go. There are plenty of ways to stay healthy and work out without a gym; I personally do not like them.

But in a choice between working out in a sweaty, heavy-breathing crowd where everyone’s mask is dangling from one ear, and working out at home, the way the equation still shakes out for me is: Good gym equipment is not worth people’s lives. Even if I am personally at low risk, my movement in the world is a risk to other vulnerable people. This is a very stupid situation we’ve been put in by our political leaders, and we shouldn’t have to bear so heavy of an individual burden to protect each other, but the reality is that we do.

What would make it OK for me to go back to the gym is still unclear. I'm lucky to go to a gym that is small and independently managed, and could see its staff allowing people to sign up for shifts (I'm talking like, two people at a time), thoroughly clean it between shifts, require everyone to wear masks properly, and stay away if they're sick. I would both trust the membership to respect the rules and each other, and think that two people at a time would induce enough shame in each other to not get lazy about protocol. By contrast, in a crowded room of 10 or 20 people, if one person pulls their mask down, I imagine herd mentality taking over. In the meantime, while I strongly dislike working out at home, I'm doing it.

As for canceling your membership: This is a bit more of a personal choice, but if you have a gym whose staff you think would listen, it might be worth an honest conversation with them about the choice you’re facing. Maybe you don’t want to cancel, but you don’t see yourself using your membership in the near future. In that general situation, you would cancel anyway, but the idea here would be to make clear to the owners that your decision is very specifically informed by your inability to feel safe at a gym right now.

The true best thing to do would be to write to the political authorities in question and make clear to them that, even as they can force businesses to reopen, they can’t force you, a consumer, to patronize them, which makes the entire pursuit stupid. The sheer number of things that should be different about this situation is overwhelming, but I can at least say for certain that your state governor can’t force you to go work out.

Disclaimer: Casey Johnston is not a doctor, nutritionist, dietitian, personal trainer, physiotherapist, psychotherapist, doctor, or lawyer; she is simply someone who done a lot of, and read a lot about, weight lifting.
You can read past Ask A Swole Woman columns at The Hairpin and at SELF and follow A Swole Woman on Instagram. Got a question for her? Email swole.woman@vice.com .

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