COVID-19 Safety Plan in Effect

Will Opening Gyms Spread COVID-19? An RCT

People are dying to get back to normal right now. Or at least, judging by news reports, some are certainly willing to take risks. Gyms are a particular sore spot. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer has been in court to prevent gyms from opening and spreading COVID-19 in her state. Other states are opening their gyms. But in Oslo, Norway, intrepid scientists took a different approach. The TRAiN Study group mounted a randomized controlled trial to test the safety of opening five gyms there.

The verdict? In that city, in those gyms, in late May and early June, the researchers found no sign of COVID-19 transmission.

Randomized Invitations to Come Back

When this study started in Oslo, gyms were still closed. However, the five gyms in the study randomly invited half of their members to come back and work out, starting May 22. The study ran for three weeks and involved 3,764 gym members with no underlying medical conditions. Locker rooms were open, but showers and saunas were not. The gyms implemented social distancing and extra hygiene measures. People were thrilled. Goril Bjerkan told the New York Times:

It was fantastic to get back to the gym again after almost 11 weeks of closure. I suspect it was more risky to visit the shopping center than to visit the gym.

Likewise,  57-year-old Heide Tjom said:

Keeping fit is very important to me. I feel it is important to my existence.

Investigators monitored infection status by PCR tests after two weeks and collected electronic clinical records for everyone in the study after three. Only one case of COVID-19 appeared in the whole study population. It was a person in the gym group. Contact tracing identified the source of the infection as being outside of the gym – from a workplace.


This study is encouraging for people who want to get back to their gyms without worrying about COVID-19. But it’s hardly a guarantee of safety. First of all, you should note that the study findings are preliminary They’re in a pre-print, which means they haven’t gone through peer review. Second, the study had a limited duration. During the three weeks of the study, not much happened to folks in either study group with respect to infections. Yes, new cases of COVID-19 occurred in Oslo. But to only one person in the study.

And that brings us to the final limitation of the study – too few events to find a difference between the groups. In essence, the study proved that in a cohort with only one new infection, it made no difference whether people went to the gym or not. The story might be very different in a cohort with more new infections in the study.

Knowing Is Good, Judgment Still Required

Despite the limitations, this study is both helpful and encouraging. Having good, objective information to support policy decisions builds confidence in those decisions. It provides a dramatic contrast with policy makers who dismiss inconvenient facts.

In the end, making policy does require good judgment. We also need to follow up with curiosity about the effects of policies after they’re set.

Click here for the study and here for further reporting on it. For related thinking on trials of opening schools, click here.

COVID-19 Safety Plan in Effect, photograph © Ted Kyle / flickr

Subscribe by email to follow the accumulating evidence and observations that shape our view of health, obesity, and policy.


June 26, 2020

One Response to “Will Opening Gyms Spread COVID-19? An RCT”

  1. June 26, 2020 at 1:12 pm, Hilary Greenberg said:

    No-one wants to see rising numbers of people contracting this virus. And, it is good to see preliminary research on in a gym environment.

    It’s also extremely important to understand that there is a broad spectrum of gym settings. This means that research needs to be done at a variety of points on the spectrum and policy-making needs to respond to specific issues.

    Big box gyms with large numbers of members using equipment that is packed in tightly to accomodate more people, such as a bank of treadmills or even compact weight lifting areas, are at one end of the spectrum.

    However, the fitnesss facility spectrum also includes those where only one-on-one or small group personal training are offered, generally by appointment only. Social distancing and other COVID-related concerns are easily addressed.

    A blanket statement about “gyms” resulting the closing of all fitness facilities, impairs fitness routines and wellness practices for many people under circumstances where optimizing physical and mental health is even more important.