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Sports and Fitness in the COVID Era: What Fitness Studios, Gyms, and Participants Should Know

On August 3rd, New York City’s mayor, Bill DeBlasio, announced a vaccine mandate for the city’s residents. This mandate requires proof of at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine in order to participate in a variety of activities, including indoor dining, fitness, and performances, for both participants and employees. At the time of the announcement, Mayor DeBlasio told New Yorkers via press conference, ““The only way to patronize these establishments is if you are vaccinated, at least one dose. The same for folks in terms of work, they will need at least one dose.” 

While the policy takes effect August 16th with enforcement slated to begin on September 13th, many of the businesses impacted are already enforcing proof of vaccination and/or mask requirements. Furthermore, other metropolitan areas and states like Philadelphia and Los Angeles County in California have followed suit. In the U.S., at least 23 states have now reintroduced mask mandates or recommendations on either the state or county level. 

These shifting requirements and policies have serious implications for businesses like fitness studios and gyms, which are left to pivot and adapt quickly to ensure patron safety and local regulatory compliance. The persistent prevalence of COVID in all its variant forms and frequent changes in expert guidance on transmission mitigation may have workout enthusiasts in particular wondering if it is safe to return to the gym or fitness studio. This post aims to answer questions about studio and gym safety for fitness buffs on both sides of the check-in desk – be they patrons ready to pump some iron or staff members ready to dial up the revenue.

The Baseline Risks of Public Fitness, Pre-COVID

Before diving deep into how COVID has affected the world of gyms and fitness studios, it is worth noting that there were health risks inherent in these settings long before COVID led to 2020’s mass closures and cautious reopenings. As a 2019 Washington Post headline disconcertingly disclosed,  “Your gym is teeming with invisible members: germs.” In fact, long before the COVID pandemic, researchers had demonstrated that other germs were quite endemic to exercise facilities. A 2014 study of gyms around Memphis sampled various surfaces within the gyms and found 17 bacterial families and 25 bacterial genera represented in the samples. What was the most prevalent pathogen? Staphylococcus. The study authors concluded their findings by urging, “It is critical to underscore the need of proper hygienic practices in fitness centers and gyms for minimizing the spread of disease-causing organisms.”

The CDC echoes this study’s findings on its MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) resource page. Regarding athletic facilities, the CDC states, “MRSA spreads easily in athletic facilities, locker rooms, gyms, and health clubs because of shared equipment and skin-to-skin contact.” The CDC has also noted that there are five factors or “5 Cs” that contribute to MRSA spread: Crowding, frequent skin-to-skin Contact, Compromised skin (cuts, scrapes, or rashes), Contaminated items and surfaces, and lack of Cleanliness. It is interesting to note that three of these factors are environmental (Crowding, Contaminated items and surfaces, lack of Cleanliness), while two are human (skin-to-skin Contact, Compromised skin). For gyms and fitness facilities, focusing on mitigation strategies for the environmental factors can prove crucial. However, broader research has shown that the environmental factors are not often well managed.

 A 2015 study of gym microbiomes further corroborates this ease of spread. In this study, the authors collected samples from three different gyms in the Chicago area to understand “bacterial assemblages” associated with surfaces including floors, mats, benches, free weights, and elliptical handles. These surfaces were sampled every other hour over a 10-hour period for two days. The researchers found that the samples collected from surfaces in contact with shoes (floors and mats) had a larger core microbiome than surfaces in contact with hands: bench, weight, and elliptical surfaces showed 3-5 bacterial genera, while the floor and mat surfaces had 7-10. All surfaces showed an abundance of Staphylococcus. The authors suggest that their findings have implications for building design by concluding, “Understanding the microbiome of indoor surfaces will help us to design better buildings, where surface-mediated human-microbe interactions are optimized for health and safety.” 

In 2016, a study focused on Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus, which can include MRSA) examined samples collected from 16 fitness facilities in Ohio. The researchers found that all of the facilities were contaminated with S. aureus and MRSA, with 38.2% of the samples collected from the 16 facilities testing positive for S. aureus. The research team concluded that their study demonstrated a higher incidence of both S. aureus and MRSA in fitness facilities than in other settings previously researched, such as schools, playgrounds, and beaches. They also suggested that high hand-touch surfaces may harbor and easily disseminate pathogenic, antibiotic resistant bacteria if regular and widespread cleaning practices are not in use in a facility. A similar study of a university athletic facility also found Staphylococcus species on mats and weights with a 52% prevalence, followed by S. aureus at a 38% prevalence, and MRSA at a 6% prevalence.

All of these studies demonstrate that long before COVID, there were unseen risks inherent in gyms and fitness studios given the high incidence of bacteria and pathogens on shared surfaces. As the CDC’s 5 Cs highlight, the risks are both environmental and human in nature. While gym-goers have some control over the human factors of Contact and Compromised skin, the above studies demonstrate that the onus is on gyms to manage the environmental factors through appropriate spacing and cleaning protocols. This environmental mitigation has particular importance for surfaces like workout or yoga mats, which can be particularly conducive to bacterial or other transmission given the high frequency of contact with hands, feet, and bodily fluids. COVID compounds the risk already inherent to workout environments given their incumbent microbial threats. Patrons have a right to know what protocols are in place to mitigate all risks, and facilities have a responsibility to mitigate proactively and effectively. Otherwise, even if a patron doesn’t catch COVID at the gym or fitness studio, he or she is likely being exposed to something else.

COVID’s Impact on Gyms and Fitness Studios

As the COVID pandemic began to set in during 2020, many gyms and fitness studios were forced to limit services severely if not close altogether. According to the industry group the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), COVID left the following marks on the fitness industry in the U.S. in 2020:

  • Revenue dropped 58%
  • 17% of fitness facilities permanently closed
  • Eight major fitness companies filed for bankruptcy
  • Over 1 million industry employees lost their jobs

These significant industry setbacks prompted consulting firm McKinsey to dive deeper into how the industry has changed. In partnership with the IHRSA and drawing heavily from their study entitled “The COVID Era Fitness Consumer,” McKinsey compiled their own study to hypothesize on how the industry might emerge from the pandemic. In their article, “Sweating for the fitness consumer,” the McKinsey team noted two significant factors that will influence the future of fitness for U.S. enthusiasts. First, COVID forced dramatic changes to exercise regimens, with 85% of fitness club users saying they changed their workout routines due to COVID. Second, COVID accelerated the widespread adoption of tech-based and at-home solutions, with overall downloads of health and fitness apps growing 27 percent March 9-24 of 2020. Given these COVID-induced adaptations, the big question for gyms and fitness studios is this: will users come back?

According to the IHRSA, there is reason to believe that gym goers will returnl. 95% of gym club users surveyed for the organization’s report, “The Covid Era Fitness Consumer,” shared that they missed at least one aspect of working out at their gym. When pressed to elaborate, the reasons for missing the gym all tied to the same theme: these respondents missed the sense of community their gym or fitness club provided. Drawing on this insight, the McKinsey consulting team recommended that the fitness industry focus on building consumer relationships that will last and grow. For on-site fitness providers, this shift in focus will necessitate “a more hybrid approach that keeps consumers figuratively and digitally connected.” For providers of at-home solutions and equipment, future success wil lie in “the normalization of DIY fitness.” For both types of industry players, the research team urges a high standard of data security to accompany the increases in hybrid fitness models that collect personal information. The McKinsey team concludes, “Success will accrue to those that earn consumers’ trust and a place in their fitness routines.”

Indicated Actions for Gyms and Fitness Studios

With incumbent microbial risks still present and COVID continuing to loom large, fitness facilities face an uphill battle to remain viable. However, assuming adaptability, there is hope. Industry observers have provided a number of recommendations that can be summarized in a set of 5 Cs far less menacing and more encouraging than the CDC’s 5 Cs warning about MRSA transmission. The 5 Cs of staying in the fitness industry game are Community, Convenience, Connectivity, Control, and Cleanliness. Of these 5 Cs, Community and Cleanliness enable a differentiated emotional and physical environment, while Convenience, Connectivity, and Control all facilitate a more customer-centric business model.

For gyms and fitness studios hoping to return to pre-pandemic norms, it is crucial that these businesses focus on both the emotional and physical environment that they are providing to patrons. The IHRSA and McKinsey reports each concluded that in-person exercise venues afford a sense of community in ways that at-home fitness cannot. To remain relevant for gym goers who have now spent over a year working out at home or adopting hybrid exercise approaches, fitness facilities will need to find ways to, as the McKinsey report put it, “help meet consumers’ psychological need for belonging and mutual support” to help members feel that they are taking valuable time for themselves and their overall well-being.

To enhance that sense of well-being, it is critical that fitness facilities invest significantly in higher standards of cleanliness to combat ever-present threats like staph and MRSA as well as newer pathogens on the germ block such as coronavirus. This higher standard of cleanliness can only be achieved through not just cleaning or sanitizing equipment and common, high-touch surfaces/spaces but by aggressively disinfecting equipment and studios to achieve a 99.99%+ destruction of microbial threats. A deepened commitment to cleanliness will provide the kind of peace of mind and psychological safety in which patrons can focus on their fitness without worrying that the very activities they are engaging in will diminish rather than elevate their health. Furthermore, according to the IHRSA, the likelihood of catching COVID at a gym is low: one IHRSA study found that gyms are in the bottom 5 for settings where COVID transmission has occurred.

Beyond creating an emotionally and physically enticing environment for consumers, gyms and fitness studios need to take a customer-centric approach to post-pandemic adaptations. Catering their offerings to maximize Convenience, Connectivity, and Control will help them differentiate themselves from their competition. The reality of COVID era fitness adaptations is that consumers now expect not only higher standards of cleanliness, but also higher standards of care for their needs and specific situations.

This enhanced attention to consumer needs could mean increasing convenience by offering pop-up classes in new locations, offering to have trainers travel to trainees, or providing streaming class options that eliminate commutes and promote hybrid workout models. More consumer-centric fitness could also mean elevating connectivity by partnering with wearable device brands to offer discounts on products. Finally, it could entail ceding some control to consumers by creating more flexible membership plans or even soliciting feedback more regularly on everything from facility amenities to playlists to class schedules. 

Indicated Actions for Gym and Fitness Studio Patrons

Regardless of personal vaccination status, there are some key questions fitness fanatics should be asking before heading back in to get their sweat on. Self-reflective questions include the following queries: 

  • What is my personal risk tolerance for exposure or transmission? 
  • Are there individuals in my household who might be at higher risk or more vulnerable if indirected exposed to COVID through me? 
  • Is the current community transmission rate in the area where I intend to exercise high? 

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, a recent New York Times column suggests thinking twice before hitting the gym.

In addition to these more personal introspections, gym and studio patrons should also feel empowered to ask their fitness providers about measures the facility is taking to ensure safety. These questions could include inquiries such as:

  • What disinfection protocols is the gym/studio employing?
  • How regularly is the facility disinfecting equipment and shared spaces? 
  • What policies, if any, does the facility have in place regarding vaccination or mask usage?

In a recent download titled “Gyms Mitigating Risk Pose No Extra Risk: A Guide to Using the Data,” the IHRSA has asserted that health and fitness clubs following risk mitigation procedures “pose no extra risk” to exercise enthusiasts. Rather, the organization urges patrons considering a return to the gym to “stop evaluating clubs’ risks based on if no precautions are taken” and to instead “evaluate clubs’ safety level on the guidelines and precautions in place.” Gym goers can do this by proactively inquiring about mitigation strategies enacted at their gyms to inform their decisions about returning to exercise. 

What Does COVID Mean for the Future of Fitness?

 For gyms and fitness studios to reopen successfully, cleanliness is crucial. Their ability to control for the human element through vaccination and masking policies will vary broadly based on local mandates and regulations. Consequently, a focus on enhanced environmental mitigation practices will be all the more important. Regularly and effectively disinfecting (rather than just sanitizing or cleaning) will ensure the highest standard of indoor environmental safety. A cost-effective and eco-friendly way to achieve that standard is through UV-C disinfection.

The good news is that the fitness industry is beginning to see the (UV-C) light. Today, U.S. Ski & Snowboard announced their partnership with R-Zero to bring UV-C disinfection into their training facility in Park City, Utah. Regarding this partnership, Gillian Bower, Director of High Performance at U.S. Ski & Snowboard, noted, “R-Zero’s Arc adds a safe, highly effective and sustainable way we can ensure we’re reducing risks in all spaces and for all parts of the organization.” As other fitness providers and facilities follow the example of U.S. Ski & Snowboard, they will ensure that the future of the fitness industry remains secure through elevated disinfection practices that prioritize cleanliness and customer-centric offerings in a post-pandemic, increasingly hybrid fitness world. Recognizing the symbiotic relationship between fitness facilities and the enthusiasts who frequent them will allow the fitness industry to do its part in enabling safer indoor environments where the risk of exposure or transmission doesn’t thwart or diminish the positive results of working out and prioritizing one’s physical health.

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