A gym trainer exposed 50 athletes to COVID 19, but no one got sick — because one member is a ventilation expert who redesigned the room's layout

A Virginia gym managed to avoid a coronavirus outbreak after a coach was infected.

While at least 50 people were exposed to the virus, no one else got sick.

That’s in part because Dr. Linsey Marr, an expert in airborne viral transmission, is a member of the gym, and worked with the owner on gym policies to reduce the risks for athletes there. 

Marr said ventilation and plenty of space are essential to having a safer workout indoors. 

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By the time a coach at a Virginia gym tested positive for COVID-19 after a week of leading classes in early October, at least 50 athletes had been exposed to potentially contagious particles.

For most gyms, that would be a nightmare scenario. But not a single other person at this trainer’s gym, 460 Fitness, was infected. 

That’s because, unlike most gyms, they had an edge against the coronavirus: One of their members is Dr. Linsey Marr, a world-renowned expert on aerosol transmission at Virginia Tech, specializing in how the coronavirus and similar pathogens travel through the air. 

Making the gym as coronavirus-proof as possible

Marr, who describes herself on Twitter as an “intellectual omnivore and avid recreational athlete,” worked with gym owner Velvet Minnick throughout the summer to ensure the high-intensity, CrossFit-style workouts there were as safe as possible for athletes and trainers.

She told Insider that good airflow, proper planning, and plenty of social distance make all the difference in helping to ensure enthusiasm is the only thing that’s contagious at the gym.

Marr calculated optimal ventilation for the gym, based on the layout and various wind scenarios.

460 Fitness is located in a warehouse space with many large, garage-style doors that roll open, allowing for so much airflow it’s nearly comparable to being outside, Marr said. Minnick opened all its warehouse-style doors, and stationed athletes near the doors.

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Gym-goers don’t wear masks at 460 Fitness, working out in a layout that allows for at least 10 feet distance between people, not the usual six.

That’s because six feet, which is the typical measure for socially distancing based on an outdated concept, isn’t enough when people are breathing heavily, expelling all those potentially contagious particles into the air.

“It’s likely that higher intensity exercise is riskier because people produce more aerosols when they’re breathing faster and harder,” Marr said. 

Ventilation is key to safer workouts

The outcome at Marr’s gym is in stark contrast to a recent case at spin studio in Canada, where one asymptomatic person was linked to at least 85 other cases of COVID-19 among trainers, clients, and family members alike.

“The ventilation for sure was the difference,” Marr told Insider. 

While the spin studio had adhered to sanitation policies, such as disinfecting surfaces, gym equipment, and the workout space itself, Marr said the biggest priority for gym-owners should be air quality and air flow. 

“I think we need to spend at least half of our time and effort on cleaning the air rather than cleaning surfaces,” she said.

In response to the outbreak at SpinCo, the studio has since implemented an air filtration system, according to their website. 

3 strategies to reduce the risk of indoor exercise at other gyms, from masks to a carbon dioxide detector

Unfortunately, many people may not have access to a facility with enough doors and windows to air it out, and an specialized expert calling the shots. 

“I was ready to get back to the gym, but I was in a special situation because I knew the gym owner well and worked with her on new policies,” Marr said. “I’m lucky the gym has been able to reduce the risk enough that I’ve been able to feel comfortable going there.”

When it comes to gym safety generally, there’s a lot we still don’t know about how riskier they are compared to other activities. According to Marr, it all comes down to the specifics of each unique gym or class facility. “You can’t speak generally, because they’re so variable,” she said. 

But there are a few strategies any gym can use to minimize the risk of outbreaks.

1. First, minimize contact with other people.

“The number one thing I can say is to avoid crowds. If you can go when it’s not crowded, it’s much safer,” Marr said. 

2. Get outside air into the gym, or mandate masks indoors

If it’s too cold to open windows and doors, or you otherwise can’t air out the space, wearing a mask is a safer bet. 

Marr said she understands why people dislike working out in a mask, and she doesn’t wear one herself during gym sessions because of how well-ventilated the space is. But she does wear them when working out in more populated venues, and said that the initial sense of straining to breathe does fade over time. 

“Masks are very helpful but a lot of people don’t like wearing them, and I don’t like wearing them so I get that,” she said. “But after a couple of days, you can used to it and it’s fine.” 

3. Get a carbon dioxide detector

If you do work out indoors (or own a gym with indoor classes and facilities), consider investing $100 or so in a portable carbon dioxide detector, Marr said.

These devices measure the carbon dioxide in the air, which is produced as people exhale. More carbon dioxide in the air means all those exhalations have built up in the space, and you’re more likely be surrounding by other people’s respiratory particles (and potential contagions).

That makes the detector a good way to gauge how well air is flowing and thus, what the risk of viral transmission might be.

With some precautions, you can still enjoy a group workout

Like everyone else, Marr had to resort to Zoom classes last spring as businesses nationwide shut down early in the pandemic, which she said was “a struggle.” For many people, exercising with others can boost motivation and energy, and make the experience more fun overall. 

Though the gym has re-opened, the social distancing can dampen the team spirit of a good workout. 

“People don’t hug and high five like we used to, or stand around someone who’s finishing the tough part of the workout and cheer for them,” Marr said. “My workout buddies are at the opposite end of the gym, so we’re not suffering together as much.”

But 460 Fitness has an answer to that too. Prior to the pandemic, gym-goers would record their workout data (such as times, reps, and weights) on a shared chalkboard. Now, they’ve transitioned to a digital app. 

Marr said athletes can record how they felt during a workout, and comment on others’ experiences. Some people post almost literary descriptions of their workouts, and workout buddies can use the forum for competition and rapport.

It’s not the same as a sweaty hug, but it does convey at least a little of the solidarity and adrenaline of a good old-fashioned team workout, according to Marr.

“It’s been a way to maintain or build camaraderie that we don’t have because of all the precautions that we have in person,” she said. 

Read more:

I tried a socially-distanced outdoor fitness class and was surprised at how safe I felt working out in a group

Is it safe to go to the gym or an exercise class? Here’s the research we have on fitness centers and the coronavirus.

A spin studio that required 6 feet of distancing and had strict sanitizing has been linked to at least 47 COVID-19 cases

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A gym trainer exposed 50 athletes to COVID 19, but no one got sick — because one member is a ventilation expert who redesigned the room's layout

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