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Are gym workouts worth the risk during a COVID wave? Some St. Louisans say yes

Nichole Holzum, of St. Louis, Mo., exercises on Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022, at The Legacy, Athletics and Barbell Gym in The Grove. Holzum is among those who have returned to masked workouts in gyms across the region amid the COVID-19 pandemic, noting the mental health benefits of being able to work in a gym.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Nichole Holzum, of St. Louis, does lunges while lifting a barbell last week at the LAB Gym in the Grove. Holzum is among those who have returned to masked workouts in gyms across the region during the coronavirus pandemic, noting the mental health benefits of being able to be in person at a gym.

Ioana Gruchevska started working out at the LAB Gym in St. Louis a few years ago. But early in the coronavirus pandemic, she stopped coming in for about six months, worried that she'd catch the virus.

Like other gym members in the St. Louis region, she eagerly returned following temporary shutdowns and resumed her workouts.

“The gym reopening and the safety protocols that were in place made me feel pretty comfortable to resume,” said Gruchevska, who now works with a trainer at the LAB Gym a few days a week.

Although Gruchevska and others have returned, people in St. Louis are divided over how safe it is to go into the gym and work out during the spread of the omicron variant. Gym owners in the city say membership is down significantly at the time of the year when gyms usually see an influx of people working on their New Year’s resolutions to get in shape.

At the LAB Gym, memberships are just a fraction of what they were before the pandemic hit, and efforts to find new members also are lagging, owner Chris Thacker said.

“I’ve got some people resurfacing, but the number of leads through the door … we’ve taken a hit,” Thacker said.

To help keep the virus from spreading, health officials are encouraging people to stay home and avoid gatherings and nonessential activities.

Gyms are particularly risky places to be during a spike in coronavirus cases, said Dr. Sarah George, an infectious disease specialist at St. Louis University.

“People in gyms are working out, which is great for their health, but that means they are huffing and puffing and breathing an awful lot and inhaling a lot of air,” George said. “And depending on how the equipment is placed or what they're doing, they may be doing so at close quarters.”

She said coronavirus particles can survive and remain infectious on surfaces for several hours.

Some LAB members eagerly returned as soon as temporary bans on gyms ended in 2020.

“The minute they let us back in here, I've been in ever since. Five days a week,” gym member Nichole Holzum said. “I feel totally safe.”

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Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Nichole Holzum, of St. Louis, lunges while holding a kettlebell and weight lifts last week at the LAB Gym in the Grove.

Marian Linc, who started going to the LAB Gym not long after it opened 15 years ago, isn’t working out there these days. But it’s not because she’s afraid of catching the coronavirus.

“When I was required to wear a mask at the gym, I had to quit,” she said. “I couldn’t lift anything heavy for any length of time without hyperventilating, I couldn’t breathe.”

Thacker requires members to wear a mask while working out at the gym. Some members say that the practice makes them feel safer about working out there.

Personal trainers in St. Louis say many clients are choosing to stay home.

Bryce Mitchell, owner of the New Era Fitness in St. Louis, said before the pandemic that his personal and group training sessions were full in the morning and late afternoon.

These days, he said, “I’ll probably see two clients a day, three clients a day.”

Sarah Felts, one of Mitchell’s clients, usually works out a few times a week with Mitchell at his gym. She started going back to the gym when cases waned but stopped when the omicron variant hit and hasn’t been back since Christmas.

“My grandma is 92, and she’s in good health, but if something were to happen, I want to be able to go see her,” Felts said. “And that’s sort of what’s at the top of my mind when I’m trying to figure out where am I going and with who and for how long and what COVID precautions are being taken.”

Some people in a high-risk category say they need the gym. Eighty-five-year-old Peter Hammond still works out with Mitchell twice a week.

“If I don’t exercise for a while I feel it. My gait slows down, my footsteps get smaller. I start acting more like an old person, which of course I am, but I think that exercise is essential,” Hammond said. “And I guess it’s worth the risk, otherwise I wouldn’t be doing it.”

George, the SLU infectious disease expert, said people don’t need to risk going to a gym to reap the benefits of regular exercise.

“You may not have all the equipment at home — you probably don’t — but you can still do basic jumping jacks, jogging in place at home,” she said. “It’s simply in my opinion a risk you don’t need to take.”

George advises those who feel like they need the gym and are vaccinated and boosted to bring wipes to clean equipment before using it and work out a safe distance away from other people.

Follow Niara on Twitter: @niaraalexandra

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