I can remember all those thoughts that raced through my mind that evening at the gym—my last one—but I can’t tell you a damn thing about the workout itself. Did I eke out that fifth and final rep on the bench press I’d been shooting for? Was I still feeling something weird in my low back when I rowed the barbell? Who knows. The only thing I can say for sure was I spent more time thinking about possibly contracting or transmitting the new coronavirus than I did about my actual workout.
The gym is usually where I decompress, but the gym in the time of new coronavirus really stressed the hell out of me.
So when gyms in my area are finally allowed to reopen, I’m not sure I’ll be joining them—at least not right away.
Now, I know it’s not completely fair to extrapolate future behavior based on past actions. When people return to the gym, they very well may understand the severity of the situation, and make their actions follow suit. Back in March, I really don’t think the general population, at least in my neck of the woods, knew the extent of what was coming. If they did, maybe they’d have been a little more careful during their final weeks at the gym, wiping down their equipment, keeping distance from others, and staying home with that hacking cough. Or maybe my gym would have been a little better at enforcing cleaning measures—or at least have more than one roll of paper towels available for the entire gym.
But with what we know now, I trust that gyms are going to do what they can to make their places safe for their patrons (as well as their staff and trainers) when they return. Gyms and fitness studios like Gold’s, Equinox, and SoulCycle shared their upcoming policies with me for a story I recently reported on the reopening of gyms, and I can honestly say their changes—which include things like spacing out machines, scanless entry, ramped-up sanitation, and updated codes of conduct—will make a lot of exercisers breathe a little easier.
Will it be enough for me? Honestly, I wish it were. While I know it’s a privilege to even say so, especially while others are dealing with crises and serious, life-altering consequences of this pandemic, I admit I miss the gym and the sense of normalcy it represents with an almost embarrassing longing. Without that part of my routine, I feel like I’m both stressing and stagnating. The adrenaline rush—that unexpected, confidence-boosting eruption of beast mode—when you press 25s on the bar for the first time sans spotter can’t really be replicated by the sad pile of tiny dumbbells that make up my at-home workout.
But at least at the beginning, when everyone first returns and acclimates to the new normal, I think the stress of the gym environment will negate its feel-good benefits that I’ve relied on for so long. All of the precautions available can’t erase the fact that there is some risk of contracting COVID-19 when you go to the gym, just as there is when you go to any public place. And right now, that stresses me out.
As Amesh Adalja, M.D., an infectious disease expert at Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, told me recently, your decision to go back to the gym all comes down to your personal risk preference: How much risk do you want to take on?
My personal risk preference, I think, would be much higher if the possible consequences of getting sick affected only me. I’m not really afraid of getting the illness myself; I’m more worried about passing it on to others—maybe the woman in her 70s who hangs her purse on the arm of the treadmill each night as she reads her way through an hour of incline walking, or the former powerlifter in his 60s who’s just coming back from knee surgery. Or maybe I unknowingly spread it to the cashier in the grocery store, or to my loved ones once social distancing is relaxed—my dad, who’s fighting cancer, or my husband, who’s had pneumonia twice in the last six years.