(Pxhere.com)

(Pxhere.com)

Panting, spewing droplets, poor ventilation: What makes gyms a superspreading risk

Fitness studio has been linked to more than 65 cases of COVID-19 in Ontario

A recent COVID-19 outbreak at a southern Ontario fitness studio is illustrating how certain indoor settings can provide a perfect storm for superspreading events.

The studio, a downtown Hamilton SPINCO location, has been connected to 69 cases of COVID-19 as of Wednesday, despite screening customers, operating at 50 per cent capacity and keeping the recommended two-metre radius around bikes.

So how did so many cases originate there? And does it raise concern about how the novel coronavirus can spread in a gym setting?

“Certainly this event makes you wonder that,” said Dr. Matthew Oughton, an infectious disease expert at Jewish General Hospital and McGill University in Montreal.

“I can see where this could lead to perhaps gyms having serious restrictions placed on them if they want to avoid similar superspreading events.”

Ontario and Quebec recently reintroduced closures at gyms in virus hotspots, including Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa, for a four-week period to help limit spread.

And Dr. Barbara Yaffe, Ontario’s associate chief medical officer, said Wednesday authorities are reviewing guidelines for fitness studios across the province after the Hamilton outbreak.

Oughton says gyms and fitness studios have a few strikes against them when it comes to tailoring them for the pandemic.

They’re operating almost exclusively indoors, which makes for poorer ventilation, and patrons aren’t usually masked when engaging in strenuous exercise.

High-impact activity also leads to heavier breathing, which means droplets are being expelled from peoples’ mouths at an accelerated rate — and being propelled further distances.

Dr. Andrew Morris, a professor of medicine at the University of Toronto, likens it to throwing a ball. The harder you throw, the further it goes.

“We still don’t have a perfect understanding of this,” he said. “But we do know that when people are exercising vigorously, the volume and distance of what comes out of their mouth and their lungs is dramatically different than when somebody is speaking (in a normal way).”

If people are shouting, cheering or singing — which often happens in a spin class where music is blaring and instructors spew out encouragement to keep participants’ intensity up — that can make things worse.

“And if you mix that in with a space that may not have proper ventilation, there is risk for a lot of spread to occur,” Morris said.

READ MORE: No new COVID rules for B.C. gyms as Ontario fitness studio sees ‘very large outbreak’

Dr. Ilan Schwartz, an infectious disease expert with the University of Alberta, says spin classes may pose more risk than other group settings because of the bikes themselves. In theory, the rapidly spinning wheels could aerosolize droplets by flinging them further distances.

“I haven’t seen any studies of this, but theoretically it makes sense,” he said.

“I think going to the gym isn’t necessarily high-risk, unless individuals are close together and there’s poor ventilation. But there might be specific circumstances that could make it higher-risk, where something with fast, moving parts (or) a rapidly moving fan can generate aerosols as well.”

But Morris says the real danger comes when people are spewing out droplets in a poorly ventilated space.

The prolonged length of time spent in a spin class, typically one hour, and the number of people in the room will also impact risk.

Not all fitness classes will present the same dangers, he added.

A low-impact yoga class where hearts aren’t racing and breathing is kept under control seems safer than a high-impact spin class, but not if it’s crowded and poorly ventilated.

A dance class, where participants are crisscrossing into airspace previously occupied by others, can be risky as well in the same environment.

“Assuming that room has relatively poor ventilation, that’s the kind of setting where yes, you’d be concerned about the potential for transmission,” Oughton said. “But if you had the exact same room with an excellent HVAC system, or the same room where windows were kept open … those are the kinds of things you could do to reduce the risk.”

Morris says finding ways to make these activities safer is always better than banning them.

Masks, while uncomfortable when working out, can be worn in most instances, he said. Improving ventilation and limiting numbers of people even further can also help.

“If we’re going to be successful, we can’t keep telling people they can’t have these things,” Morris said. “We need to be able to point to something and say ‘this is the better choice.’”

Schwartz says frequent hand-cleaning and the sanitization of equipment should also be kept in mind, even if surface transmission isn’t as concerning as it was earlier in the pandemic.

“And for now I think it’s probably a good idea to avoid spin classes,” he added.

Oughton foresees people taking their workouts outdoors in new ways over the winter if gyms and fitness centres are deemed too risky.

That could mean dusting off the skates or ski boots.

“I think this is going to re-emphasize the safety and the necessity of being able to get some activity and fresh air outside,” he said.

“Hopefully we find new appreciation for outdoor winter sports that we can all enjoy.”

Melissa Couto Zuber, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

CoronavirusFitness

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

COVID-19. (Image courtesy CDC)
Interior Health reports 70 new cases overnight

The total number of cases in the region is now at 1,426

This dark blue 2004 Ford 350 truck (with winches and a headache rack) was stolen from a property on Lodgepole Road in Barriere anywhere between the time of 2 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 23. (Myram Facebook photo)
Truck stolen in Barriere last Monday – information sought

“Too much theft going on and no repercussions” says local

Canfor Vavenby mill. File photo
Vavenby recieves increased legacy fund

Following more than a year of communications between the Thompson-Nicola Regional District… Continue reading

An animal at large, such as a dog running elsewhere than on the property of its owner, is one of many restrictions under the District of Clearwater's animal control bylaw. (Pixabay)
Facebook post causes stir around animal control

A resolution passed at the Nov. 3 District of Clearwater regular council… Continue reading

Masks are now officially mandatory in all City of Campbell River facilities. (Black Press File Photo)
Interior Health reports 49 new COVID-19 cases overnight

302 cases remain active; two in hospital

A man wearing a face mask to help curb the spread of COVID-19 walks in downtown Vancouver, B.C., Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020. The use of masks is mandatory in indoor public and retail spaces in the province. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. records deadliest day of pandemic with 13 deaths, 738 new COVID-19 cases

Number of people in hospital is nearing 300, while total cases near 30,000

(File photo)
Alberta woman charged after allegedly hitting boy with watermelon at Okanagan campsite

Police say a disagreement among friends at an Adams Lake campsite turned ugly

Court of Appeal for British Columbia in Vancouver. (File photo: Tom Zytaruk)
B.C. woman loses appeal to have second child by using late husband’s sperm

Assisted Human Reproduction Act prohibits the removal of human reproductive material from a donor without consent

Krista Macinnis displays the homework assignment that her Grade 6 daughter received on Tuesday. (Submitted photo)
B.C. mom angry that students asked to list positive stories about residential schools

Daughter’s Grade 6 class asked to write down 5 positive stories or facts

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

B.C. projects targeting the restoration of sockeye salmon stocks in the Fraser and Columbia Watersheds will share in $10.9 million of federal funding to protect species at risk. (Kenny Regan photo)
13 projects protecting B.C. aquatic species at risk receive $11 million in federal funding

Salmon and marine mammals expected to benefit from ecosystem-based approach

Barrels pictured outside Oliver winery, Quinta Ferreira, in May. (Phil McLachlan - Black Press Media)
B.C. Master of Wine reflects on industry’s teetering economic state

Pandemic, for some wine makers, has been a blessing in disguise. For others, not so much.

An employee of the Adventure Hotel was taken to hospital on Nov. 20 after she confronted a customer of Empire Coffee about not wearing a mask. File photo.
Nelson hotel employee suffers heart attack after being assaulted in anti-mask incident

An accountant at the Adventure Hotel is in hospital in Kelowna

Most Read