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Hitting the gym safely in 2021

Your resolution to get healthier should include COVID-19 precautions

ST. LOUIS — New year, new you — same pandemic. But that doesn’t mean you can’t accomplish your health and fitness goals heading into 2021.

“I think gyms can be done and they can be done safely,” said Dr. Jason Newland, Washington University and Barnes-Jewish Hospital infectious disease expert. “It's just, how are you going to do it?”

Capacity limits (which remain at 25% in St. Louis and St. Louis County) and general pandemic concerns keeping people home mean crowds will likely be smaller than a typical January.

“It's definitely much less than prior,” said Stacey Trimarke from the YMCA at Carondelet Park, who suggested calling your gym to find out times when it’s the slowest and go then, booking a reservation if possible. She also noted that the slow times might not be what they typically are, with some schedules more flexible for those now working from home.

Dr. Newland also recommended staying for less time once you get there.

“The longer you're in the environment with more people, the greater your risk,” he said. “If you do a 15-, 20-minute hard effort of something that's limited in the number of people, that's going to be much safer.”

A safe gym will limit crowds and space people more than 6 feet apart, have good ventilation, make hand-sanitizing stations available and get machines wiped down regularly. However, the most important equipment is the mask on your face.

“The data continues to show that a mask is not going to make you not have enough oxygen in your blood to do the exercise you want to do,” said Dr. Newland. “Now, you might have to take a few more breaks; it's not going to hurt you and actually is going to protect you and likely save many people.”

Disposable surgical masks may be more comfortable than cotton ones; either may help you face a new kind of challenge at the gym — and break free from that elliptical.

“If cardiovascular work with a mask on is intimidating or scary or doesn't feel right, try instead strength training. We know it's good for us and it's certainly going to have a little bit less air flow back and forth in terms of intensity,” said Trimarke. 

Workout classes may put you too close to too many people for too long, warned Dr. Newland. Instead, consider a virtual class many gyms are posting or opt for a virtual membership like the one offered at the YMCA.

Staying home is always the best option if you’re experiencing any COVID-19 symptoms.

“The more we can limit the numbers and the more we can wear a mask, the better off we'll be,” said Dr. Newland, “and the sooner we'll be back toward the full spin class with the 10 or 20 people sweating and having a blast, because we love that. And that'll happen sooner if we can get through these next few months.”

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