Illustration: Maria Chimishkyan

Test Gym

Will It Ever Be Safe to Go Back to the Gym?

As some fitness centers reopen, public health experts cringe

Christie Aschwanden
Published in
6 min readMay 27, 2020

After weeks of YouTube workouts and at-home exercise routines, fitness enthusiasts in many parts of the country will soon (if they don’t already) have the opportunity to return to the gym.

Decisions about when and how businesses can reopen are being made by state and local leaders, but thanks in part to lobbying by the fitness club industry, gyms are included in the businesses that the White House Guidelines for Opening Up America Again recommends reopening first — provided they “adhere to strict physical distancing and sanitation protocols.”

But even under strict sanitation protocols, can facilities where people congregate to sweat and breathe heavily in confined spaces using shared equipment actually be safe during the coronavirus pandemic?

That depends on whom you ask.

“Open businesses, open gyms, open the outdoors! Let people do what makes them healthy and happy!” tweeted International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) VP of communications Meredith Poppler on May 12. The IHRSA has contacted state governors across the United States, asking them to reopen fitness clubs, and stressing that club operators are “ready, willing, and proactively wanting to work in partnership with state officials on reopening plans.” (Poppler declined my phone interview request.)

Not so fast, say public health experts. “It doesn’t make sense that indoor gyms are included in the first round of reopening,” says Leana Wen, MD, an ER physician, visiting professor of public health at George Washington University, and former Baltimore city health commissioner. The risks from heavy breathing in a confined space are simply too great right now, she adds.

“I don’t want people to get the wrong message and think that reopening means everything is fine…Nothing about the virus has actually changed.”

Ask the gym about their procedures, and bring disinfectant wipes with you to thoroughly wipe down any surface before and after you touch it. Finally, don’t linger.



Christie Aschwanden

Author of GOOD TO GO: What the Athlete in All of Us Can Learn from the Strange Science of Recovery (Norton, 2019). Twitter: @CragCrest