As Gyms Reopen, Owners Ask: Can Air Bikes and Rowing Machines Spread Disease?

As gyms reopen, a virologist rings in on whether gyms should avoid equipment with fans.

A May study published in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggested that air conditioners can spread coronavirus.(1)

Specifically, the study discovered a woman eating in a restaurant in China infected nine people, including five people sitting at other tables, because the air conditioning unit behind her spread infected droplets from her speech through the air.

Studies such as this one have led CrossFit gym owners to question whether they should be using equipment like air bikes and ergometers, which both have a built in fan, to avoid the chance of spreading the virus.

“No Assault bikes or ergs for us. We have the two-meter rule between people, but that is pretty much negated if people are accelerating air at each other,” said Cam Birtwell, the owner of CrossFit Vic City in Victoria, British Columbia.

“We will get rid of our air bikes for the time being,” added Alli Cain Winberg, the owner of Anchor Home of Health in Keswick, Ontario.

An Expert Opinion

Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University, said a number of variables should be considered before gym owners should make the call whether or not to use equipment with built-in fans.

“A lot depends on the set-up of the gym and the crowding conditions, the speed of those fans, the ambient temperature, humidity, (and) airflow in the gym,” Rasmussen said.

On the topic of airflow, it’s important to note that the restaurant in China in the May study had exhaust fans that were sealed up at the time, thus limiting airflow.

“There was no fresh air coming in,” Donald Milton, an environmental health professor at the University of Maryland, pointed out in an article about the air conditioner study.

“Outbreaks — where you have a bunch of people infected all at once like that — are almost exclusively occurring indoors in poorly ventilated environments,” he added in the same article, thus suggesting business owners should consider how air circulates through their space.

Luckily, most affiliates have big bay doors and well-ventilated spaces. Some owners are even taking extra measures to improve their ventilation right now.

“We have added an exhaust fan in the rear to help pull air out. We have also opened our skylights and reversed our MacroAir fan to help pull air out,” wrote JB Fitts, the owner of CrossFit Crown City in Pasadena, California, in the CrossFit Affiliate Owners Only forum on Facebook.

“Front door open, garage door open, fan rotation turned to pull air up and (an) exhaust fan. Our building is a long bus barn, so flow from doors open and fans will mitigate a lot of stagnation,” added John McMullen, the owner of CrossFit Beverly in Chicago, Illinois.

A bigger risk than bikes and rowing machines, according to Rasmussen:

“The bigger risk is the number of people in the gym at any one time and the duration they are staying in the gym. Transmission is still poorly understood indoors, but it appears that physical proximity and duration of time in the environment play a role, (so) the biggest risk is always going to be proximity to other people who might be infected rather than the virus persisting in the environment.”

She added: “Going to a gym, especially one with too many people and without adequate distancing measures in place, is a risk in itself, but it’s hard to calculate how much exercise equipment with fans would impact that risk.”

 Featured image: @crossfitcrowncity on Instagram