Can Vaccinated People Go to the Gym?

By | July 16, 2021

The Well newsletter

Can Vaccinated People Go to the Gym?

Experts offer guidance on indoor fitness classes and more.

Credit…Ann Wang/Reuters

This week on Twitter I received a version of a question I’ve been hearing a lot: Now that you’re vaccinated, would you go back to doing (insert activity here)?

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer. In today’s newsletter, I’m going to share the guidance I’ve heard from a number of virus experts to help you decide what the right answer is for you when you’re deciding what activities to join and what events to skip.

Let’s start with a specific question someone asked me this week: “What’s your guidance on fully vaccinated people resuming indoor cycling and fitness classes at gyms?”

Gyms and indoor fitness classes are one of the riskier sources of viral spread for the unvaccinated. I recently wrote about the case of a 37-year-old fitness instructor in Hawaii, who taught a spin class to 10 people.

He was perched on a bike in the front of the room, facing his students as he shouted instructions and encouragement. The doors and windows were closed, but three large floor fans created a breeze to keep everyone cool. As a precaution against Covid-19, all the bikes were spaced at least six feet apart. (At the time, the gym didn’t require people to wear masks.)

But just four hours after class, the instructor began feeling fatigued. By the morning he had chills, body aches, a cough and other respiratory symptoms. Soon, he tested positive for the coronavirus, and eventually, everyone who attended his class that day tested positive, too.

The outbreak didn’t stop there, though. A 46-year-old fitness instructor who attended the spin class went on to infect another 11 people during personal training sessions and kickboxing classes over the next few days, before falling ill himself and landing in intensive care.

The case of the Hawaii spin instructor was alarming because of the efficiency with which the virus left his respiratory tract and swirled around the enclosed classroom, reaching every person in the room. Among epidemiologists, that’s known as a 100 percent attack rate.

This story happened before people could be vaccinated, but it’s a lesson in why group fitness classes, which often encourage high-energy huffing and puffing in poorly ventilated classrooms, present such a daunting challenge to infection control. It’s unlikely that a vaccinated person would become ill after attending a group fitness class, but the risk of infection is certainly higher at an indoor fitness class than going to the grocery store or your local library.

So how should you decide what to do? I’ve spoken to a number of experts and the consensus is that vaccination should help you get back to much of your normal life — with a few reasonable precautions, like wearing a mask on public transit or in a store, when the vaccination status of those around you is unknown. Here’s their guidance.

While no vaccine offers 100 percent protection, the current crop of vaccines from Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson are strongly protective against coronavirus. Overall efficacy is slightly lower against the highly infectious Delta variant, but the vaccines still all offer robust protection against serious illness, even against Delta. More than 99 percent of current cases are among the unvaccinated. Whether you’re at the gym, a wedding or on a college campus, the unvaccinated person is at the highest risk.

The more opportunities you give the virus to challenge your vaccine, the higher your risk of getting a breakthrough infection. So if you’re out clubbing every night, or tending to an unvaccinated child with Covid-19 without taking mask precautions, you could eventually come into contact with a large enough dose of the virus that the antibodies your vaccine generated can’t offer complete protection. The good news is that even if the virus breaks through, the effects of your vaccine still keep working to protect you from severe symptoms.

If you’re young, healthy and vaccinated, a fitness class where a few participants might be unvaccinated doesn’t pose much risk. But if you are immune compromised, living with an older or vulnerable person or caring for an unvaccinated child, you should be more cautious. Consider an outdoor class or find a well-ventilated gym with windows and open doors on opposite sides of the room. Join a class where masks are required of everyone. Read more about gym precautions here.

The experts I talked to said they would make different decisions depending on where they live. In Vermont, where 86 percent of adults have had at least one vaccine dose, spending time unmasked in a restaurant, fitness class or theater poses very little risk. But if you’re in Mississippi, where just 46 percent of adults have had their first shot and cases are on the rise, the chance of coming into contact with a superspreader is higher. You might want to skip the gym, and mask up in the grocery store.

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