Particle Spreading: How COVID-19 has Impacted Sports

For thousands of years, we have used sports to bring people together. But the COVID-19 pandemic has forced us apart and away from our treadmills, basketballs, and tennis courts as we isolate inside our homes. With gyms and recreation centers beginning to reopen with additional precautions, fitness fanatics everywhere are coming back to the courts, tracks, and fields. However, new research on the spread of COVID-19 has many wondering if it’s really safe to hit the gym just yet. 

Beginning in March, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) has advised that COVID-19 could only be spread through close contact via respiratory droplets that are produced when an infected individual “coughs, sneezes, or talks.” However, after receiving pushback from international scientists and public health experts, the CDC has since revised their guidance on COVID 19, saying it is possible for the virus to spread through air.

“Airborne viruses, including COVID-19, are among the most contagious and easily spread,” the site cautions. While the majority of coronavirus spread is a result of close contact respiratory droplets produced when a person coughs, talks, or sneezes, the CDC now warns that growing evidence indicates that “droplets and airborne particles can remain suspended in the air and be breathed in by others, and travel distances beyond 6 feet (for example, during choir practice, in restaurants, or in fitness classes).”

Indoor spaces are all the more subject to viral spread, and as winter approaches, many will begin taking their fitness routines indoors to newly open gyms and group workouts, leaving room for increased transmission. Even with the addition of masks and air purifiers, COVID-19 can be spread directly through the air in crowded spaces.

Newly opened gyms have tried to combat this problem by limiting the capacity and restricting access to certain areas, but managing viral spread can be especially challenging in places where every surface is likely to be touched. The National Institute of Health advises that more research is needed on the ability of coronavirus to spread through sweat, but this fact only highlights the challenges facing indoor sports centers utilizing shared equipment in the midst of a global pandemic. 

Although outdoor sports are a much safer option for group activity, the CDC still advises adherence to safety precautions. “Emphasize wearing masks,” the site advises. During high intensity exercise or when the wearing of masks is not otherwise possible, “consider conducting the activity in a location with greater ventilation and air exchange (for instance, outdoors versus indoors),” and always maintain social distancing.

Minimizing the amount of shared gear, washing hands, and wearing masks in between games are all key in controlling COVID-19 spread. The CDC advises against large group competitions, particularly those requiring team members to travel far outside their areas. Small drills and practices on your own or with a small group are classified as the safest form of physical activity. 

There is still so much we don’t know about COVID-19 spread. The best thing we can do is follow the advice of health authorities, wear masks and stay six feet apart. In these confusing times, we have the opportunity to get creative with our fitness routines. Try new ways of working out like online videos, at home drills, walks, or small games with friends. Together we can get through this pandemic and maybe come out of it fitter than we were before.

Running is a great way to get socially distanced exercise during the pandemic. As gyms and fitness centers reopen, it’s important to understand how COVID-19 spreads. Illustration By Bijou Allard.

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