(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

Nuu-chah-nulth language champion Tim Masso holds his Rainy Coast Arts Award. (Jessie Masso photo)
Masso and Wenstob receive 2020 Rainy Coast Arts Award

Tla-o-qui-aht brothers share Pacific Rim Arts Society honour

Pamela Evans gazes lovingly at her four-year-old French bulldog Jack on Thursday, Nov. 5. The energetic young pup has regained his usual rambunctiousness after recently recovering from a significant illness brought on by consuming discarded cannabis new Brown’s Beach in Ucluelet. (Andrew Bailey photo)
Discarded cannabis a “frequent” threat to pets in Tofino-Ucluelet

“I couldn’t grab him fast enough to get it out of his mouth before he swallowed it.”

The School District 70 administration office in Port Alberni. AV NEWS FILE PHOTO
Four Alberni schools reporting COVID-19 exposures

Exposures occurred between Nov. 19 and Nov. 25 depending on the school

A lightning strike destroyed a radio repeater on Porter Mountain, shutting down the Ministry of Transportation and infrastructure’s highway cam at Sutton Pass. (BC Transportation and Infrastructure photo)
Lightning strike shuts down camera on Tofino-Ucluelet highway

“One of our radio repeater sites was recently struck by lightning.”

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry updates B.C.’s coronavirus situation at the legislature, Nov. 30, 2020. (B.C. government)
Hockey team brought COVID-19 back from Alberta, B.C. doctor says

Dr. Bonnie Henry pleads for out-of-province travel to stop

Victoria’s Royal Jubilee Hospital took in two COVID-19 patients from Northern Health as part of a provincial agreement. (Black Press Media file photo)
Victoria hospital takes in two COVID-19 patients from Northern Health

Royal Jubilee Hospital takes patients as part of provincial transport network

B.C. Premier John Horgan on a conference call with religious leaders from his B.C. legislature office, Nov. 18, 2020, informing them in-person church services are off until further notice. (B.C. government)
B.C. tourism relief coming soon, Premier John Horgan says

Industry leaders to report on their urgent needs next week

Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy are inviting audiences into their home for ‘A Celtic Family Christmas’. (Submitted)
Natalie MacMaster coming to you through Cowichan Performing Arts Centre

Here’s your chance to enjoy the famed fiddler in an online show with her husband Donnell Leahy.

An RCMP cruiser looks on as a military search and rescue helicopter winds down near Bridesville, B.C. Tuesday, Dec. 1. Photo courtesy of RCMP Cpl. Jesse O’Donaghey
B.C. Mountie, suspect airlifted by Canadian Armed Forces from ravine after foot chase

Military aircraft were dispatched from Comox, B.C., say RCMP

An 18-year old male southern resident killer whale, J34, is stranded near Sechelt in 2016. A postmortem examination suggests he died from trauma consistent with a vessel strike. (Photo supplied by Paul Cottrell, Fisheries and Oceans Canada)
“We can do better” — humans the leading cause of orca deaths: study

B.C. research reveals multitude of human and environmental threats affecting killer whales

A logo for Netflix on a remote control is seen in Portland, Ore.,Aug. 13, 2020. Experts in taxation and media say a plan announced Monday by the government will ultimately add to the cost of digital services and goods sold by foreign companies. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Jenny Kane
‘Netflix tax’ for digital media likely to raise prices for consumers, experts say

The government says Canadian companies already collect those taxes when they make digital sales

Most Read