Safety / Injuries
Top Ways to Ensure a Safe and Clean Fitness Environment
On a daily basis, fitness studios and gyms are assaulted by germs, fungus, and disease simply due to the high volume of people that move through them. Even without considering the disease pandemic of 2020, common pathogens like the flu make the rounds all year long with seasonal increases typically in the fall and winter months. The average American adult catches a cold 2 to 4 times per year!
Whether you work in a fitness facility or gym, own one, or just visit one for your workouts or exercise classes, staying clean and healthy is a top priority. In wake of recent events, workout facilities are taking extra precautions to ensure high contact areas and equipment stays clean and prevent the spread of illness.
A communicable disease, also known as an infectious disease, is one that can be directly or indirectly transmitted from one source to another. They can be spread by person to person contact, on surfaces, and, in some cases, through the air.
In a gym or studio setting, the most common communicable diseases include:
- Athlete’s foot- a fungal infection that can cause skin itch, peeling, and blistering
- The common cold- a series of viral infections that cause upper respiratory dysfunction, coughing, and sneezing
- The flu- a common, but ever-mutating viral infection characterized by fever, chills, body aches, and cough
- Pink eye- a bacterial and viral disease characterized by puffy, red eyes and visible discharge
- Ringworm- a fungal infection characterized by an itchy red ring
- MRSA- caused by the resistant bacteria staphylococcus aureus characterized by redness, boils, and swelling that can reoccur even after treatment
New bacteria and viruses are identified all the time and the latest large-scale threat in any public space is the coronavirus (COVID-19). COVID-19 is relatively new in humans and there are no vaccines or antiviral treatments as of yet. Current reports have determined the risk of death from COVID-19 among at-risk populations (seniors and those with respiratory dysfunctions) to be greater than that of the flu, making it a major public health concern all over the world.
Cleaning, Disinfecting, Sanitizing, Oh My!
There are many ways to clean a fitness facility whether by staff or gym-goers as they move through the space. However, just cleaning is not enough! The use of disinfectants and sanitizers to eliminate and kill germs and viruses is a necessary second step. For clarity, the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines each as follows:
Cleaning- Removing dirt and impurities from surfaces or objects with a detergent (like soap) and water. Cleaning does NOT kill germs, but it removes them and lowers the risk of spreading infection.
Disinfecting- Killing germs and viruses on surfaces or objects with the use of chemicals. Disinfecting does not necessarily remove the germs from the surface when it kills them, but it lowers the risk of infection.
Sanitizing- Cleaning and killing germs on surfaces or objects enough to bring the microbe level to an acceptable range.
Outside of cleaning, disinfecting, and sanitizing, health professionals have recommended social distancing. This practice of creating space between individuals with the aim of preventing the spread of disease is nothing new. It originated in the Middle Ages to slow the spread of the plague and has only really been employed a few times since. The more populous an area, the more challenging social distancing becomes. However, it has been found to be effective in conjunction with cleaning and disinfecting protocols.
Heavy breathing, coughing, and sweating are all things that can accelerate the spread of disease and they happen constantly in a fitness environment. People who remain socially distant reduce their risk of either sharing or encountering infectious bodily fluids.
Face Coverings and Gloves
Along the lines of social distancing are the introduction of face coverings. Referred to as PPE, or personal protective equipment, these have been used in Asian countries to prevent illness related to smog and air pollution, but the current pandemic has made them more applicable than ever. From face shields to cloth or disposable masks, face coverings are more readily available to the public and generally protect the public more than the user. This is because the mask wearer is unable to spread aerosol particles through coughing, sneezing, or heavy breathing.
Personal trainers, exercise class instructors, and group exercise leaders are now seen wearing masks while teaching or instructing and have the responsibility of wiping down all equipment and their space before the subsequent class or before leaving for the day.
Gloves are worn by health care professionals regularly but are now a staple in most fitness facilities. Whether scanning members in, accepting money, cleaning, or where there is a possibility of physical contact, many employers are supplying all employees with gloves to protect themselves during their work shift.
Gyms have begun to implement updated precautions regarding the cleaning of high contact spaces and equipment. While there is no right or wrong way to go about cleaning, there are general guidelines that most facilities are taking.
Employee Health and Hygiene
The employees that have chosen to return to work after the pandemic shutdowns of fitness facilities are taking a great risk. They are near and in contact with many people throughout their workday. Employers have begun to provide the PPE necessary to protect employees, but employees are also required to:
- Wash hands upon arrival to work, after working closely with others, after touching their PPE, after using the restroom, and before leaving work
- Wear PPE and physically distance when possible
- Carry a towel and cleaning solution with them at all times
Streamlining Facility Protocols
Fitness facilities have instituted some best practices to ensure they are doing their part to protect their employees and the public. Many fitness facilities and gyms have done the following:
- Created audits and checklists for cleaning duties
- Hired staff specifically for cleaning and disinfecting
- Implemented the use of tags to establish equipment that is clean and ready for use
- Increased the number of wipe or sanitation stations
- Increased the frequency of cleaning for locker rooms and bathrooms
- Begun to clean air conditioning vents daily
- Limited payments to contactless options (like a credit card, PayPal, online, etc.)
- Provided staff trainings on disease control and cleaning protocols
Staff tasked with cleaning gyms and studios often arrived and cleaned after hours in the past. Now, more staff are being hired expressly for cleaning and sanitizing facilities at all hours of the day. The fact is that guests and gym-goers will never do as thorough of a cleaning job as is required to be effective. Staff are paid to do so. It starts in the space where the cleaning supplies are kept. Many facilities have tidied up the maintenance closets and cleaned them from top to bottom to remove and prevent bacterial growth or virus harboring.
Bathrooms and Locker Rooms
Outside of the usual hand washing after bathroom use, there is not much more being requested of customers in bathrooms and locker rooms. Staff at many fitness facilities are tasked with wiping and disinfecting bathroom counters, sinks, and stalls much more frequently than the old standard of once per hour (maximum). In some smaller facilities, the bathrooms may be available for customers, but showers, locker room areas, saunas, and steam rooms are closed to public use. The cleaning procedures for these spaces are extensive and difficult to complete in a timely manner.
Spray bottles of commercial-grade disinfectants and paper or cloth towels have always been a staple at most gyms. They were usually accompanied with a polite sign requesting that members wipe down equipment after use. Despite being a great idea, most people did not adhere to the cleaning rules and it was seldom enforced in the past.
Now, gyms have added more cleaning stations throughout their facilities as well as hand sanitizing stations. The presence of signage regarding handwashing protocols and sanitation requirements has increased and some gyms even have staff monitoring the exercise areas to ensure cleaning takes place.
It is not a widespread practice to chastise or remove customers not following the rules, but the new expectations have been set. Most gyms will let it slide as to prevent losing a membership from an embarrassing confrontation and have, instead, introduced more staff to assist with the constant cleaning similar to the way self-serve kiosks are wiped after each use in grocery stores.
Some gyms, CrossFit boxes, and studios have adopted a system of reservations. This includes some facilities that do not operate under a group fitness model. Members must reserve a workout time via the company’s app or website and may only be admitted during that time. Often while inside, customers must still remain socially distant from other patrons.
Special Hours for Special Populations
Much like the precautions taken by grocery stores amid the COVID-19 outbreak, some gyms are offering specific hours or class times only for elderly or pregnant customers. During these hours, the eligible customers are still requested to remain socially distant.
For those who are immunosuppressed or have severe respiratory issues, the CDC recommends they not attend fitness facilities at this time as the risk of infections is still too high.
Group fitness studios, yoga studios, and even large gyms are limiting the number of customers allowed inside the building. Group training studios like Orangetheory that can hold a full class of 35 to 45 people have cut back to classes of 12 to 15 to minimize the amount of equipment individuals have to share during class. Large gyms simply set a capacity (often including staff members to keep them safe) and will have patrons remain in a socially distanced line outside of the facility. Once full, for each person who leaves, one is allowed in.
Some gyms have begun to perform temperature checks before admitting exercisers into their facilities. Fever or elevated temperature is a hallmark of most diseases as it is an uncontrollable immune response. It must be noted, however, that not all who are ill will have an elevated body temperature.
Current CDC recommendations suggest that any individual with a temperature of over 100 degrees is a risk. Fitness facilities and employers using temperature checks to monitor customers and staff will often allow a recheck of temperature after a 5-minute waiting period with a high reading. This helps to negate a false positive reading due to elevated skin temperature or any other cause.
Another common protocol for temperature checks is, after two high readings, to send a customer away for a period of 24 to 48 hours. They are allowed to come back for a recheck after that time and, if they still have an elevated temperature, they must wait for an extended period before returning. As a courtesy, most fitness facilities will pause a customer’s membership until they return to avoid charging for a service they are unable to use.
The space allowed between gym equipment becomes paramount when individuals are breathing heavily, sweating, and, potentially, releasing water vapor and aerosol particles. Some facilities with extra space have begun to rearrange and allow for 4 to 6 feet between pieces of equipment. In some cases, equipment must be completely removed to allow for the extra spacing, meaning the overall occupancy of a large gym, for example, will be greatly reduced.
When equipment cannot be removed, a fitness center may unplug or cover equipment that is too close together. For example, turning off every other exercise bike or covering every other weight bench to force social distancing protocol.
While it seems counterintuitive to remove fans that circulate air and keep you cool during a workout, they also circulate aerosol particles from other people! Some gyms have resorted to turning off all fans (not inclusive of air conditioning units) or, when possible, removing small fans from studio spaces. Smaller locations with windows or garage doors can open them to allow for more adequate air circulation when the weather is appropriate.
Getting Customer Feedback
Regardless of the precautions and cleaning standards a facility is utilizing, it is important that they ask for customer feedback. It is virtually impossible to ensure that every customer is following every rule regarding cleanliness in a fitness facility and this may make some patrons uncomfortable.
Many gyms are sending automated emails that trigger when the customer scans their key tag for gym admittance for the first time since reopening. Some have comment cards or in-house tablets for feedback and surveys, and others have staff and managers speaking with customers while they are in the facility.
The feedback they receive is critical. While no facility will be perfect, understanding the fears or concerns of the customers will allow fitness facilities to appropriately respond and take action to make people feel safe. After all, a customer that does not feel safe is likely to cancel their membership. Fitness is a membership and relationship business.
The New Normal
The response to COVID-19 specifically was relatively swift and absolute. The way businesses and individuals proceed after the initial response will have a big effect on how communicable disease is treated and prevented around the world. The protocols and restrictions in place because of rapid disease spread are unlikely to disappear any time soon.
Fitness is an outlet for many people, and it allows us to remain healthy and active. Certified personal trainers and group fitness instructors are in high demand as staying healthy becomes a priority for a large part of the population. The industry remains in a growth state regardless of the world health events and it is up to those who run and work in the industry to keep gym members safe and protected. However, it is everyone’s responsibility to adapt and grow going forward.
Certified Personal Trainer
The Certified Fitness Trainer program is designed to equip graduates with the practical day-to-day skills necessary, as well as the theoretical knowledge needed to excel as a personal trainer serving the general public. Along with the necessary exercise science foundation, the distance education program covers client assessment, program design, basic nutrition, and sports medicine along with business and marketing skills.