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How to protect yourself from COVID-19 at the pool and gym

Ask the Expert
Woman-Gym-After-Workout
Masks are less effective if they become wet with perspiration, doctors say. Adobe Stock

Thinking about hitting the pool or the gym now that Massachusetts is in the midst of its four-phase reopening? Be ready to take numerous steps to keep from getting or spreading the novel coronavirus.

That’s according to infectious disease experts, who say that precautions such as social distancing and wearing a mask shouldn’t be ignored just because you’re swimming or lifting weights. In fact, they may be more important — but at the same time less effective.

Take masks. A wet one is ineffective against filtering the respiratory droplets that are the main way the coronavirus spreads, said Dr. Cassandra M. Pierre, an infectious diseases physician and hospital epidemiologist at Boston Medical Center. The kind of sweat built up at the gym can render masks less effective, too, and make social distancing, even at greater than the recommended 6 feet, moot. “Not only are people expelling respiratory droplets, but they may also be exhaling aerosols, which are smaller, remain in the air for up to three hours, and may travel longer distances than the 3 to 6 feet we typically quote for respiratory particles,” Pierre said.

And if you are heading to the pool, pick an outdoor one. The fresh, open air will allow for more social distancing and lessen the risk of infected droplets spreading. Also, try to pick a pool with roped-off lanes that keep swimmers apart. Avoid crowds in and out of the soup. And, while there’s no evidence that the coronavirus spreads through water, experts recommend checking whether you can see to the bottom of the pool: That’s a sign that the filter is working well, another added bit of insulation against the virus.

Air flow also comes into play at the gym, said Dr. Eleanor J. Murray, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Boston University’s School of Public Health. You don’t want fans blowing the same air around an enclosed space full of sweaty people working out side by side. That spin class, then, might have to wait for a vaccine — unless maybe you can find one held outside or takes fewer students at once.

Some gyms may even limit the number of people who can work out at any one time. Try to go then, experts say.

Finally, don’t skimp on sanitizing. Scope out what’s available in terms of alcohol wipes and sprays. Leave if you feel it’s inadequate. “It’s really important to size up the situation when you go in,” Pierre said.

Feel free, too, to bring your own wipes and sprays to use on everything from poolside chairs to exercise machines to doorknobs to lockers to diving boards. Studies, including one published in the New England Journal of Medicine, showed that the virus can live for up to 72 hours and maybe longer on surfaces such as metal, stainless steel, and plastic.

“You want to make sure that any kind of equipment that you might need to use or lockers or things like that are going to be sanitized between somebody else touching it and you touching it,” Murray said.

For all these precautions, hitting the gym and or the pool need not be seen as a zero-sum game.

“When you’re doing these activities,” Murray said, “think how do you make them as safe as possible. There is some risk in them, but there is also risk in not doing any physical activity.”

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