covid19 · Guest Post · health · illness

COVID-19 and the Gym: Building Engineers Weigh In (Guest Post)

by Sarah and Cara

As mechanical engineers who consult on heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, we’ve been closely following the evolving body of knowledge about how the SARS-CoV-2 novel coronavirus (the virus which causes COVID-19) spreads through the air. We thought some folks might be interested to know some of what we’ve learned, and how that’s affecting our thoughts on returning to the gym.

Some of the science so far

So far, we know that droplets in the air we breathe out (and in) are infectious to varying degrees depending on the size of the droplets – and that those droplets have the potential to be propelled for varying distances.

Relatively large and heavy droplets fall on and contaminate surfaces. This is a whole other topic, but it seems to be relatively well-known and understood. Also it can be controlled with frequent cleaning, so it’s less important from an engineering point of view. At the moment, our big concern (and the focus of this post) is with the smaller, lighter droplets known as aerosols. 

Scientists and engineers take particular note of so-called “superspreading” events (such as the ones that were mentioned in  Saturday’s post because they point to clues about how an infection is transmitted in a variety of real-world situations.

In the example of the choir in Washington State one mildly symptomatic person infected 52 of their 60 fellow choristers over the course of one or two 2.5 hour practices. Besides sitting close together, it is thought that the act of singing, itself, might have contributed to transmission, as aerosol emission has been correlated with loudness of vocalization.

The dance fitness classes in Cheonan, South Korea gives valuable insight into what factors which affect the risks of exercising indoors. Sports facilities are generally considered to represent a higher risk of transmission due to the warm, moist indoor air coupled with the turbulent air flow generated by intense physical exercise, which can cause more dense transmission of droplets.

Six instructors who were infected at a workshop went on to teach classes for about a week. Not all of them were necessarily even symptomatic. Secondary cases were identified from fitness dance classes with as few as 5 people in a ~60 square meter (~645 square foot) studio. Notably, an instructor who taught 7-8 person Pilates and yoga classes at one of the same facilities did not infect any of her students. Together, these us some insight as to how transmission risk might be mitigated in the short term for group fitness classes : very small class size, limits on movement to maintain physical distance, less aerobically- and movement-intense activities.

In the long term, engineers and building owners will have to address the significant concern that was raised by another notable case of a restaurant in Guangzhou, China one patron infected eight others who were sitting more than 6 feet / 2m away. It appears that air flow from the HVAC system helped carry infectious aerosols from one table to another.

A restaurant seating plan
with arrows showing airflow direction and circles showing the location of those who were infected

The role of HVAC in controlling transmission

The possibility that a normal HVAC system can carry it through the air over distances greater than the current physical distancing guidelines is a major concern. While we don’t yet know for sure how infectious COVID-19 is in aerosol form, the Epidemic Task Force of the American Society for Heating, Refrigerating, and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE, the leading industries standards organization) have stated: “Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 through the air is sufficiently likely that airborne exposure to the virus should be controlled.” 

In hospitals, aerosols are controlled by continuously moving lots of air through infectious spaces to dilute them, adding lots of fresh air, careful airflow design, and HEPA filtration.  All the air in a typical patient room is filtered about once every four minutes. While gym ventilation is actually comparable to that of hospitals – gyms need comparatively good ventilation to keep them from smelling bad – the circulating air may have little or no filtration. Even if a gym’s air handling equipment is modified with HEPA filters, to achieve that circulation the HVAC system draws air from one side of the space and blows it on the other side. Just like in the restaurant example above, air exhaled by someone will move through the breathing zone of those nearby.  

When outdoor temperatures permit, it may be possible to make temporary changes such as opening existing windows and doors to encourage wind and buoyancy-driven natural ventilation in order to increase airflow and dilute contaminants in an existing fitness space. The openings need to be large to make a difference : a crossfit gym with a roll-up garage door and a back door propped open will be safer than a studio with a small open window. Openings on more than one side of the room gives better access to cross-breezes; openings high and low in the space will drive buoyancy flows, especially if the gym is warmer than the outside air.  When natural ventilation is working well, the indoor air will smell like outside, and match the outdoor temperature and humidity levels, so the comfort of the occupants will vary accordingly.

Other approaches to improve airflow in gym spaces, such as redesigning the air distribution to direct fresh air directly onto each occupant, will be expensive and disruptive to install – and unfortunately, still not proven to be entirely effective against airborne infection. There are some HVAC solutions that will reduce the concentration of infectious aerosol droplets in the air in buildings, notably increasing outdoor air volumes; HEPA filtration; and UV lights that sterilize air above the heads of occupants.  These solutions reduce, but do not eliminate, the risk of virus transmission.

What are the risks?

As gym patrons, we miss the motivation of exercising together with others, and access to equipment we don’t have at home. As we start to evaluate the risk of returning to indoor activity, there are a number of airborne infection risk factors which must consider in our decision making:

  • Indoor exposure: Whether an office, a store, or a gym, shared indoor environments have inherent transmission risk. Each additional person occupying the space with us increases the risk.
  • Extended exposure: Being the same place with specific other people for an extended period of time (15 minutes or more). 
  • Stationary exposure: Being in the same position relative to other individuals for an extended period of time, especially if the air conditioning system is blowing past the person next so that you are breathing their air.
  • Increased respiratory droplet exposure:  Intense aerobic activity, shouting and deliberate sudden exhalation reportedly increase the amount and spread of respiratory droplets. A low-intensity yoga class represents a lower risk than, for example, a Kiai (shout) filled karate class or high-intensity cardio class.
  • Mechanical system efficacy and state of maintenance: Many gyms and other fitness spaces are tenants in older or repurposed commercial spaces which are not always in the good repair. HVAC systems lose effectiveness as they get older, and may distribute air poorly. Some owners may even shut off HVAC systems due to safety concerns but these actions could actually increase risk if they reduce the outdoor air flow into the space. 

Controlling the risks 

For any given hazard, there are many different possible ways to address or mitigate the associated risks. Those who have taken a workplace health and safety course may recognize this hierarchy which is commonly used to rank the effectiveness of the various controls.

Heavily adapted (by Cara) from The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) guide to Controlling exposures to occupational hazards.[Content source: National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health] 

Preventing infection using an engineering control – like the fresh air system inside a gym  – or administrative controls such as cleaning –  is necessarily less effective than substituting a lower risk activity – such as exercising outside in places where physical distancing can be maintained.

Is outdoors actually safer?

Both published research to date and epidemiological consensus appears to indicate outdoor activities are extremely low risk: a recent, not yet peer-reviewed study of infections in Chinese cities outside Hubei province in January and February showed that less than 1 in 300 outbreaks (only 1 out of 7000 individual infection events) could be traced to contact that occurred outdoors. B.C.’s provincial health officer has been quoted going so far as to say “the risk [of catching the virus] would be infinitesimally small if somebody walks [or runs] by you.” 

The evidence is strong that for the foreseeable future, substituting parks, backyards or even gym driveways will be a reasonably safe way to enjoy exercise with others, while indoor workouts will remain high risk until either the risk of exposure to infection can be eliminated, or effective engineering controls can be implemented. We want to support our fitness spaces, and we are hopeful that the summer weather will allow everyone to use the outdoors to bridge the gap until it’s safe to be together inside again.

Pictured: Yoga practitioners in supine spinal twists on colorful yoga mats in a wide, spaced circle  around an instructor in a park on a sunny day:  2018 Madison Yoga Challenge, Lung Cancer Research Foundation (LCRF)(Flikr) Photo from:Lung Cancer Research Foundation (LCRF)

Cara is an active promoter and designer of sustainable buildings, specializing in multi-unit residential and municipal facilities, enjoys dancing, Jeet Kune Do, acroyoga and circus arts, and bikes to get places.  

Sarah specializes in existing residential and commercial high-rises, and the systems that make them habitable. She spends far too much time poking around the guts of buildings and not nearly enough time on road bikes, sailing dinghies, or skis.

We’re both professional engineers.




fitness · Guest Post

Mother’s Day cycling, remembrances of races past (guest post)

Today’s Mother’s Day post is courtesy of my dear friend Pata. We are riding buddies, crafting pals, and sisters of choice. We both have (and had) complex relationships with our mothers– another point on which we understand each other. We also love them dearly. So, from Catherine and Pata, Happy Mother’s Day to Beth (Catherine’s mom), JoAnn (Pata’s mom) and Tobyanne (Pata’s stepmom).

And Happy Mother’s Day to all of you from us.

Pata (on left) and Catherine, last summer during one of our coffee rides.
Pata (on left) and Catherine, last summer during one of our coffee rides.

Now, on to Pata:

Mother’s Day, 2008: I got up at 5AM and left the house around 6:30 to ride to my first race.  It was a crit– which just means it is a course that goes around and around.  Fifteen laps to be exact, each lap just under a mile.  I went to my parent’s house which is about five minutes from the course to use the facilities (there are none at the race site) and to shed some of the warmer clothing I had needed so early in the morning.

As I entered the race course, I looked over to the woods and out came a coyote.  He looked me straight in the eye and I passed him on my bicycle and he went along his way.  Coyote is one of my animal totems and I felt like he was saying, “Don’t take the race or yourself too seriously, girl!  See the humor and have some fun.”

I was one of the first people to show and rode around the course a couple of times.  A few other women riders who I knew arrived and we rode the course together.  This actually was a mistake for me.  I had already warmed up by riding to the race and I just tired myself out a bit by doing more laps.  Oh well, live and learn. 

The race started a bit past 8:30 and we were off.  I was with the pack but toward the back, which isn’t a great place to be.  There was one woman who was squirrelly and unfortunately I was behind her.  Around the second or third lap she almost crashed into another rider and to avoid getting involved in a crash, I had to go around them.  As luck would have it, neither of them went down.  But I was separated from the pack and never got back on.  So, I rode most of the race time trial style, by myself.

At one point, I passed a fellow team mate who was struggling.  I told her to get on my wheel and tried to pull her so she could rest.  She couldn’t stay on and eventually abandoned the race. 

At the very end, one of the team coaches came up and gave me a lead out to the sprint.  I, being quite befuddled, wasn’t sure on which side to sprint past her and end up sort of muddled it up.  (Turns out the side didn’t matter.)  But I sprinted to the finish in the end.

I was determined to finish the race even if it meant I was going 5 mph (which I didn’t).  I did finish and not everyone did.  I was the last rider who finished.  And lo and behold I got a prize.  They call the last rider the lantern rider.  That would be me.  

I learned a lot in this race.  I went into it knowing that this kind of race wouldn’t be my strength.  I do better when there is terrain and some hills.   But I learned that riding too much before the race isn’t a good idea; that starting as close to the front as you can IS a good idea; that you have to watch out for the squirrelly rider and stay way; and that I am a team player.  In the end, it was a nice Mother’s Day gift to myself.

A lanterne rouge (last rider) jersey. I should get a supply of these...
A lanterne rouge (last rider) jersey. I should get a supply of these…
covid19 · Guest Post · martial arts

A Month in the Life of a Virtual Taekwondo Coach (Guest Post)

Facebook reminded me that just over year ago, in April 2019, I had been at a taekwondo tournament with the kids I coach. I love my kids. I’ve known some of these athletes for about 4 years now, which, I sometimes forget, is quite a lot of their lives. We kick at each other, I make them do pushups, fill their water bottles and tie their chest guards. I get plenty of hugs. They sidle up to me regularly to either check if they’ve outgrown me yet, or tease me about the fact that they outgrew me a year ago. Or at least they did until mid-March.

Happy coach, happy athletes, definitely not physically distanced from each other.

For a little over a month, I’ve been teaching all my taekwondo classes online. The whole studio moved to online classes for our members over Instagram Live and Zoom. It’s definitely not optimal to teach fitness remotely in general, but teaching a contact sport when you’re not allowed within 6 feet of anyone else is a whole other challenge altogether.

Non-contact sparring is tough unless you’re this guy I guess

We’ve been focusing a lot on footwork drills, and shadow sparring (basically the kicking equivalent of shadow boxing). There’s a lot of standard kicking combinations, and it never hurts to review the basics. Some of the kids even have parents or siblings who can hold targets for them. But even though I’ve been trying to find creative ways to do partner-style drills over Zoom, using its Spotlight feature, nothing virtual really quite replicates the feeling of someone else’s foot about to hit you. Not to mention the bodily sense of what you have to do to avoid it and counter.

Still, what makes it worthwhile for me at least, isn’t so much that my athletes are maintaining some of their abilities (though I’m happy they are). It’s that I still get to work with them as a team, and that we’re all still engaged in trying to get through a tough time together.

I’m interested to hear from other people who are teaching fitness (especially martial arts!) remotely right now. What kinds of creative things are you doing to help everyone with their training? Or even just to feel like you’re still connected as a community?

fitness · Guest Post · injury · triathalon

Guest post: Exercises for a broken wrist

by Mary Case

As I am recovering from a broken wrist, there are several physio exercises that I do on a daily basis. When a friend shared with me that she was experiencing some wrist and forearm pain from her increased computer time, it occurred to me that these exercises and stretches could be a contribution, so I created this video. I am not trained in this area, but I do know what a difference these are making to my recovery. I think they may contribute to some of you who are finding yourselves at the computer, more than usual.  

Mary is a recently retired Elementary School Music Teacher, an Energetic Body Worker, an Access Consciousness Certified Facilitator and a professional violinist. When not involved in any of the capacities mentioned above, she can often be spotted in water, on a bike, or running to prepare for her next triathlon.

cycling · fitness · Guest Post

Avatars and Representation (Guest Post)

by Jennifer Szende

Before the pandemic, I was already a regular Zwift rider. In a recent women-only group ride, the chat turned to the limited range of available avatars on Zwift. One rider lamented the fact that recumbent bikes and hand bikes are not available as avatar bikes in Zwift, even though a number of cyclists use the game with these and other accessible stationary trainers.

The chat eventually turned to the related question of representation at ZwiftHQ. The assumption was that Zwift HQ must be predominantly male and able bodied, and that (an assumed) lack of diversity in the design room must be at the root of the lack of diversity amongst design elements for avatars. I have no insight into the design room at ZHQ, but I have thought a bit about how digital decision-making is made, and about the pros and cons of more representative avatars.

We know that lack of diversity in a given setting in the real world has detrimental effects on those with marginalized identities. And we also know that the online context does not automatically reproduce real world social contexts. Rather, the online context is an artefact, and it is the product of multiple choices – or, indeed, omissions of choice.

But, we cannot solve a problem if we do not recognize it. Feminist epistemology teaches us that we all make observations, and ask questions, from a situated perspective. From positions of privilege, some of us may make the mistake of assuming that our perspective is shared or universal. It is not. A helpful takeaway from feminist epistemology is that all perspectives are limited, but some perspectives are better situated to recognize these limitations. From positions on the margins, we have better levels of recognition that our perspective is on the margins, and is not universal.

In the design room, false universalizing has implications. The design team has set up a range of options. They presumably have reasons for setting up the avatar choices as they have. But the worry raised by the in-game chat is that some of the choices are merely omissions. The possibility that is troubling me – and was troubling a number of participants in the group ride over the weekend – is that the choices on offer do not seem limited to the design team. If there is no one in the room to alert the design team to the problem, they may be issuing that their perspective is universal. This is where the in-game chat could be useful.

The failure to offer a more diverse set of avatar options is a choice on the part of the game designers. The failure on the part of the designers at ZHQ – whether it is an omission or a deliberate choice – has implications for the choices available to users.

There are social game-related reasons to have a more diverse set of avatar options. It is damaging to women, people of color, and individuals with diverse abilities to feel excluded from the the outdoor and fitness industries. Damaging in the sense of exclusion from fitness, and damaging in the sense of exclusion from community. In this case, users are customers who pay a subscription. And if the game were more diverse, it might be more welcoming to more people. The outdoor industry has been pushed to recognize the problem, but Zwift is an odd hybrid between indoor and outdoor fitness worlds.

There are game-related reasons to include recumbent bikes: they are more aerodynamic on the downhill, but can be more difficult to manoeuvre on the uphill. So, they could offer a game-specific accessibility lesson.

At the user end, it can make you vulnerable to appear as yourself, and it can make you vulnerable to appear different. So, many are faced with a dilemma. It may be safer for many players to opt for a non-representative avatar rather than to out themselves as ‘different’. It can be safer to blend in. Anonymous or pseudonymous social interactions can be protective to those with marginalized identities. Being ‘different’ or appearing as ‘Other’ can make you a target.

Avatars are only ever problematically representative. They may allow affirming options to self-identify in various ways, and to thereby seek out community within the game. They may also create passing privilege and the ability to blend in, to be less vulnerable in the virtual world.

My take? The vulnerability of appearance and avatar choice ultimately has to be made by the user. Zwift is doing us a disservice if our identity is not available as an avatar. But the vulnerability that accompanies representative avatars has to be the user’s choice. A more diverse array of avatar options would allow the user to make the choice.

Jenny Szende is a philosopher, writer, climber, cyclist, mother, and follower of Yoga with Adriene in Toronto. 

fitness · Guest Post

Getting back at the workouts

Things have been tough the last several months from a workout perspective. I’ve been dealing with a wonky shoulder, broken wrist and burnout. After temporarily wrecking my shoulder, I fell and broke my wrist, then spent 12 weeks in a cast. I waffled between general burnout and depression throughout all this, so working out just didn’t feel like an option most of the time.

After getting my cast removed, I resumed physiotherapy on my shoulder as well as my wrist, then COVID happened. My physio went online and I’ve spent the last 4 weeks trying to find the right chair height so I can work at my home desk without wrecking something else.

All in all, it’s been hard to get back at activity. My smart watch alerted me to the fact that I had 12 move minutes in my first week of working from home and I managed to work my way up to 15 the second week. Everything hurt and the only things I was doing was physio once a day. I’ve gone from lifting pretty heavy weights to barely being able to carry a half-filled plate, so really needed to do the strengthening work. Did I mention the lack of sleep? Turns out that my already tenuous sleep habits got significantly worse without movement.

Getting back into workouts has been mentally challenging and so I’ve started with doing my physio as often as I’m supposed to, maybe a little bit more. My physiotherapist has given me exercises for my wrist, hand, shoulder and back which is a bit above and beyond the original issues, but much appreciated. So, I’ve started turning off my video camera so I can do physio in longer meetings, and while watching the Marvel movies in chronological order. I’ve paced out a quarter mile in my backyard and am walking laps, when it’s not too cold, because I’m still a big baby, and I’ve pulled out the DVD I bought just before I wrecked myself to do some stretching.

This is stretching for circus performers, so for those of us who lift, but don’t stretch EVER, it’s so hard! Turns out I am NOT a circus performer. A full hour of hip opening, hamstring and calf stretching and back and shoulder stretching. Should I be out of breath when I stretch? It’s like aerobics, but worse! Anyways, it turns out the stretching is a good antidote to sitting through COVID and is a great way to get back into exercise.  I may not be able to start my circus career in my 50s, but maybe I can at least keep myself from feeling so old! Hopefully I can keep it up.

competition · cycling · Guest Post · injury · triathalon

What does retirement, Covid19, an orange cast and a cancelled race, have in common? (Guest post)

by Mary Case

In January I wrote a blog post about my first week of retirement. It was filled with the joyful anticipation of long workouts in preparation for a half ironman race in May, a lane to myself in the pool, lots of recovery time, the freedom to train when I wanted and workouts at what I would call ‘civilized” hours.

As the month unfolded, it was all of that and more. Building through February to cycling over two and a half hours on the trainer, while indulging in classical music on CBC radio, longer runs built up to 13k , long swims and a stunning trip to Arizona for hiking and outdoor adventures. I was on target for race day, May 31st.

And then things changed a little. First a small injury requiring a shift from running to walking for a bit. No big deal. This, while somewhat frustrating, could be managed. I did notice however, how challenging it was to “slow down”. Little did I know what “slowing down” would come to mean.

Fast forward one month to March 1st. I was walking my dog Ranger, the last vestiges of ice on the sidewalks, when this walk was cut abruptly short with a fall on the ice resulting in a broken wrist.

I digress briefly in this blog from my theme here, to acknowledge the incredible kindness of strangers I experienced as people stopped their cars, called an ambulance, made sure I was warm, called my hubby and took care of the dog. True angels of humanity.

Many hours later I was sporting a beautiful orange cast. It seemed only fitting that I choose the Balance Point Triathlon team color.

Author on bike trainer, sporting orange cast supported on pillow

Now what? This is taking slowing down to yet another level. As the bones heal, Netflix binging becomes the activity of choice. Sitting still for this girl, proves to be somewhat challenging.

Meanwhile enter the unprecedented times of Covid 19. Social distancing, the closing of many of my frequent hangouts; gyms, pools, yoga studios, physio clinics. While the time frame for wearing a cast and slowing down for it, was somewhat annoying, there was light and recovery at the end of the tunnel. Now what?

The pain of the injury subsides and the body is restless. Slowly I am able to add some time on the bike trainer with the arm propped up and the arm can now be at my side for some longer walks. 

I start to notice something on these walks. There is a sense of peace in this slowing down. I hear the birds, my senses are heightened. The traffic is quiet. There is not the constant mind chatter of the next workout, of pace times, of calculating nutrition needs. Something is shifting.

And then the announcement that the race is cancelled. While this was at first difficult, I do notice that I slow down again. Things that were relevant it my world fade for now. There is more space. Priorities change. My thoughts shift especially as I witness what others are going through. How important really is a pace time?

I know that I will ramp my training up again at some point in the future. My body loves to move, it loves a challenge and it really does not do Netflix well. Who knows what racing will look like in the future and when that will take place?

What does Retirement, Covid 19, an orange cast and a cancelled race have in common? For me it is the gift of slowing down. The chance to be still, to play a little with technology, to read, to listen to the birds and meditate. I reprioritize and experience life in a different way, if only for a little while.

 Meanwhile, the tires remain pumped.

Nostalgic photo of author at empty race site. 

Mary is a recently retired Elementary School Music Teacher, an Energetic Body Worker, an Access Consciousness Certified Facilitator and a professional violinist. When not involved in any of the capacities mentioned above, she can often be spotted in water, on a bike, or running to prepare for her next triathlon.