Three brief notes on coronavirus and exercise

Posted on March 13, 2020

(Last Updated On: March 15, 2020)


An under appreciated aspect of being in-shape is in-shape people get sick less often than out-of-shape people. Particularly with obesity, I’m not sure this is well considered in the context of the toll it places on society.

This has never been made more obvious than with the coronavirus outbreak. Much has been made of the fact older people / those with underlying health issues are disproportionately the ones dying.

Another way this could be stated is the more out of shape the person is, the more likely they are to die. You can’t change whether you’re older, but you can change whether you have high blood pressure, if you have high blood pressure whether you manage it well, etc.

This will be my one arm-chair immunologist comment- the virus appears to be acutely relevant in those with chronic cardiovascular issues. The CDC mentions heart disease, diabetes, lung disease. Possibly because the respiratory aspect of the coronavirus is more intense than the common flu e.g. shortness of breath is a commonly mentioned symptom to be concerned with for the coronavirus, but not the common flu.

So, if you think you’re in-shape merely because you can lift a lot of weight, or because you lift weights, it may be time to add some aerobic work (which you should probably do anyways).

Oh, and it’s never a bad time to stop smoking and be less overweight (eat less).


That said, now is NOT the time to freak out and start working out like you’re training for a marathon.

I wouldn’t be surprised if some out there have read about the underlying health issues risk factor, and have panicked, doing god knows what to be in better health.

Exercise is stress. Too much stress => suppressed immune system. Many of us have seen this happen with a lack of sleep making them more likely to get a cold.

Now is always the time to be in-shape, but now is not the time to push your limits.

If you’re a personal trainer, you should BE EXTREMELY CAREFUL about doing typical dumb trainer stuff, like making clients sore for a week.

You should be very cautious about introducing new exercises that can make you or your clients surprisingly sore (partially because they’re new (unusually stressful); partially because it might be an exercise with an intense eccentric component to it), you should be careful about any ramping up of intensity, you should be more cautious than normal if a person tells you they’re tired or haven’t slept well.

When in doubt, a good rule of thumb is when a person leaves the gym, they should feel like they could do that entire workout again.

If you’re not in-shape, that can still provide a stimulus for getting in better shape.

If you’re already in-shape, that should provide enough to maintain your current fitness.

In general, I’d be assuming all exercisers are more stressed than usual due to a worldwide panic happening. And, when people are more stressed in their daily life, they almost assuredly should be less stressed in their exercise life.


Look, there are always tradeoffs. For every person out there ranting and raving we need to close everything down, I get that.

On the other side, you have to consider, say, economic consequences of that. How much do suicide rates go up if more people end up in poverty from the economy halting? Is that amount of suicides greater than the amount of viral deaths? What risk of job loss are you willing to take in exchange for less viral infection probability? If your risk of job loss goes up 50%, is that worth a 10% risk reduction in getting the virus to you?

I have no idea. I’m making up numbers and just saying there is no easy “do this” solution with panics. (And you cannot judge a decision purely by its outcome. You have to judge it by the information you had at the time it was made.)

I’m not going to tell everybody to stop going to their gym. I’m not going to say all personal trainers or gym owners should close down. For a lot of trainers, if they don’t train people, they don’t have money for food. (Per above, what’s the risk of rioting or looting if we make financially insecure people have, or even have the perception of maybe having, even less money?)

But I have to say gyms are god awfully dirty places. People never wipe down their benches, staff members barely ever truly clean the place, people are constantly breathing heavy around one another. And maybe the gym will be clean, but the locker room is another beast.

-> The breathing aspect is critical. The CDC mentions, at the time of this writing, there have been no documented transmissions of the coronavirus through surface interaction. It is e.g. coughing next to someone who then breathes your coughed air. A cough is a forceful exhalation…a common occurrence in a gym.

If gym owners, or trainers, are telling people “things are fine, we’re cleaning everything regularly,” based on me working in a gym for over a decade and being in them for over 20 years, that would not, at all, ease my mind about going into one right now.

However, maybe you feel comfortable going into the gym, wearing gloves, never touching your face.

Maybe you don’t.

Maybe it’s time to dust off the old home workout equipment.

Maybe you run outside for your workout for a while, where you never have to touch anything, and shower the moment you come back in, just in case you did.

You don’t need to be an arm-chair immunologist. Instead:

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