COVID-19 & the Safe Re-Opening of Fitness & Rec Centers

Social and behavioral scientists use the phrase “mass trauma” to describe a potentially life-threatening event that affects not only individuals but also entire communities. Natural disasters, war, and terrorism are the most researched triggers of mass trauma. But with over 230,000 dead and nearly 9.2 million infected in America alone, it is hardly an overreaction to add the COVID-19 pandemic to this list.

Due to the pandemic, the daily lives of our students have been upended for seven months now—and as talented and dedicated as they are, perhaps it is easy to overlook their relative lack of experience. Many are living away from home for the first time. They are learning how to manage time and money in addition to contending with the rigors of higher education. The daily stressors of our students have been compounded by the pandemic, and they are understandably stressed out. And while we are doing all that we can to provide them with campus-wide support, many are still struggling with depression and generalized anxiety.

A troubling report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in September of this year identified that a disproportionate number of 18-to-24-year-olds—about one-quarter of those surveyed—had “seriously considered suicide” in the last 30 days. A separate study by the Student Experience in the Research University found that students are screening positive for depression and anxiety at higher rates than in previous years. Student counseling and psychological services have been essential during this time of lingering uncertainty, but accessing them has been a challenge. Thanks to telehealth services, students have been able to seek or continue therapy with little disruption.

We should view our fitness and recreation centers in much the same way—as an essential service that helps students cope with the mass trauma of COVID-19. Of course, the major challenge is that no comparable solution such as telehealth exists for students in need of a safe space to exercise.

The Essential Service of Fitness and Recreation Centers

Aside from the obvious benefits to the body, it is well known that regular physical exercise helps to reduce natural endorphins that may reduce stress. Some scientific basis also suggests that staying fit may help individuals avoid a serious case of COVID-19. But with any reopening of our fitness and recreation centers, there comes with it several risks, most notably those posed by people moving around indoors, perspiring, sharing equipment and breathing heavily. Such an environment could easily become a hub for viral spread, and indeed, there are scattered reports of coronavirus cases traced back to specific off-campus, public gyms.

Among the most effective stress-reducing exercises are those such as brisk walking, running, swimming, cycling, dancing, boxing, as well as high intensity interval training (HIIT workouts) that combine aerobic, anaerobic, and strength elements.  On the surface, students can manage on their own at least some of these—most likely walking and running—and they can do so without access to on-campus fitness and recreation centers.

But not every student is able or willing to exercise outside, and for reasons ranging from inhospitable weather to concerns about individual safety. Campus-based fitness and recreation centers offer students a conveniently located space that consolidates by way of amenities and equipment everything our students may need to achieve a great, stress-reducing workout.

Safety Protocols and Best Practices

Fitness and recreation centers that have reopened this fall have done so in strict accordance with state and local guidelines, and likewise with one eye on recommendations made by the CDC. Widespread safety protocols include requiring all staff to wear masks and encouraging students to do the same, maintaining a distance of 6 feet between all exercise equipment, and requiring students using free weights to maintain 6 feet, except when a spotter is necessary.

Other widespread practices include establishing a routine for cleaning and disinfecting, not merely of obvious high-touch surfaces (doorknobs, counters, toilets, faucets, and sinks) but also of less obvious ones, those such as barbells, the surface of cardio machines that may absorb sweat, weight benches, weight pins, and grips. Establishing times to close facilities for deep cleans would be ideal; moreover, if budgets allow, to acquire an electro spray device or a vapor-based device to clean every surface of an area and the equipment within it.

Check-in procedures at fitness and recreation centers are instrumental in maintaining a safe and healthy facility during the pandemic. Check-in procedures may include the following:

  • Providing personal protective gear like face masks and gloves for patrons to wear
  • Installing plexiglass at service desks
  • Setting up a temperature check station for patrons at check-in
  • Setting capacity limits on the number of people that can use the centers at one time. The American College Health Association recommends options such as access control and use-by appointment as effective ways to do this
  • Developing a reservation system for workout spots as well as fitness and conditioning classes
  • Training staff on all safety protocols including how to look for and identify COVID-19 symptoms
  • Posting signage on all fitness and recreation center guidelines, policies, and procedures at building entrances and throughout the facility

Using Facility Spaces Responsibly

Each area of a fitness and recreation center will present challenges for maintaining social distancing and the regulation of cleaning and sanitation.

A few key suggestions:

  • Space cardio equipment at least 6 feet apart. If there is not enough space to do so, turn every other piece of cardio equipment over and place “not in use” signs on equipment consoles
  • Instruct students to follow traditional
    gym etiquette and wipe down machines after use
  • If possible, assign staff to clean machines after every use
  • Provide ample wipe stations and/or spray bottles and towels for students to clean their workout stations
  • Space benches, weight racks, and other commonly used stations at least 6 feet apart for proper social distancing
  • Encourage lifts that do not require spotters or suggest the utilization of a smith machine where applicable
  • In group areas, limit the number of people in each class or studio to ensure proper social distancing measures
  • Create a procedure script for instructors to cover before each class to ensure that each patron is aware of any new protocols
  • Consider keeping pools, rock walls, and basketball courts closed for the time being
  • Mark traffic flow patterns throughout the facility
  • Set a locker room use plan, one that includes proper social distancing protocols

The end of the COVID-19 pandemic is not yet in sight—but with the implementation of thoughtful safety measures, our students can continue to use campus-based fitness and recreation centers to maintain a healthy, stress-reducing lifestyle

About the Author
David Vinson, PUPN staff writer, has a PhD in English with specializations in transatlantic literature and cultural studies. He is a committed scholar, teacher, husband, and dad. If you ever meet David, avoid the subject of soccer. His fandom borders on the truly obnoxious.