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Is it Safe to Workout in a Gym?
Is COVID-19 a risk if you workout in a gym?

Be careful of studies farting rainbows.
Be careful of studies farting rainbows.

Just because I want something to be true doesn't mean it is true. For example, I could tell you every time I drink a glass of soda; it gives me the ability to fart a rainbow.

If I said that, you'd have questions. What type of soda creates that effect? How long does the rainbow last? How big is the rainbow? And of course, can you do it now so I can see for myself?

The idea that anyone can fart a rainbow is absurd. But that doesn't stop people or companies from making claims that are just as crazy. Here's an example of one I read recently.

After analyzing millions of member check-in data across 2,873 gyms, sports clubs and boutique fitness centers over the course of three months, The International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) and MXM, a technology and knowledge transfer company specializing in member tracking within the fitness industry, conclusively found that fitness facilities are safe and are not contributing to the spread of COVID-19.

That's a fantastic claim. After looking at nearly 50 million check-ins over three-months, only 0.0023 percent of those members tested positive for COVID-19. The study claims that “...robust COVID-19 safety measures in place” are what prevented spread.

That news is precisely what gym owners (like myself) want to hear. Let gyms reopen; everything we're doing is perfect! But the data doesn't support the conclusion. They're telling you they can fart rainbows.

Here's what we know.

First, the study was conducted by an organization that makes money from fitness facilities that are open. They have an interest in making everything appear fine. That doesn't mean they've done anything wrong, but when there are financial repercussions for the organization doing the study, the data and how it's interpreted have to be looked at especially critically.

Second, they based their results on total visits, not on individuals. Let's say you have a gym with 5,000 members. Statistically, only 18% of them will visit regularly, at least according to the organization that conducted this study. Let's assume “regularly” means three times a week. That means around 900 people would be responsible for 32,400 visits over three months.

If those numbers hold up, that's 36 visits per person throughout the three-month IHRSA study. It's not 49.4 million people working out, it's more like 1,372,222. An infection rate of .0023 out of 49.4 million visits is 1,136 infections. That means the infection rate is .0827% for the individual members, or 35 times higher than their .0023% claim.

But even that number is highly suspect. You see, IHRSA arrived at that number by getting gym owners to report the data. The same gym owners that would benefit from low numbers were asked how many members tested positive.

How did gym owners find that out? Here's what MXM said, “They may determine the members or staff member is ill from a check-in procedure, such as temperature check, or the member or staff member will report themselves, or that the CDC or your Department of Health has called you to report that someone tested positive and was in your club.”

Have you ever shared your illness with staff members of the gym you workout at? Have you ever given them a doctor's note explaining why you were gone for a few weeks? Have you ever had a gym call you when you didn't show up for a while to see if you were sick?

Gyms don't have an incentive to track the medical issues of their clients. There's no procedure to call customers and ask for their health history when they don't show up. In fact, gyms count on a large percentage of their members paying monthly dues and NOT showing up. If every dues-paying member showed up regularly, gyms would be too crowded to workout in!

A study that asks gym owners what they remember, with no standardized data collection rules, is only suitable for telling you what gym owners think.

Then there's the statement by Brent Darden, IHRSA interim President and CEO. “The data shows that, with proper sanitization protocols in place, people can safely return to their workout routines.”

Which protocols were gyms following that worked? Were there things that could be directly linked to better results? Was there any information on what specific cleaning and safety steps those 2,873 gyms were taking?

Nope. None of those questions were answered in that study. When we emailed them for more details, we heard back from Andrew Nelson, VP Product at MXM, Medallia's Partner to the Fitness Industry. Mr. Nelson said:

The press release is the culmination of the feedback we gathered from clubs around the US, due to our agreements with them to keep the data private, except for the aggregate reporting of data as seen in the press release and on our site at https://mxmetrics.com/visits-to-virus-methodology/.

I want everyone who reads this article to understand, I'm not saying gyms are unsafe. There are real, clinically backed steps any business owner can take to protect their employees and customers. But that report by IHRSA and MXM cannot conclude gyms are safe because they don't have the data to back it up.

At WeBeFit, we've done real-world testing on all our procedures to make sure they're doing what they claim. We've found some things we did were working, but others were not. We don't hide what we're doing or ask for a fee to share our knowledge. We've posted every system, test and procedure online so everyone can see, learn and use those procedures in their businesses.

Become a critical thinker. When a study makes remarkable claims, it needs remarkable levels of proof. Unfortunately, the IHRSA and MXM study does not provide data to verify their claims. Based on what they've published so far, they're farting rainbows.

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