We go to the gym to get healthier, but ironically it may be one of the easier places to get sick. Studies have found rhinoviruses (the demon behind the common cold) and Norovirus (which causes stomach flu) on 63% of gym equipment, and the showers have been found to be a hotbed for fungi responsible for foot infections. Researchers also found that disinfecting equipment didn't kill off all germs. (Home workout anyone?)
Now, now, no need to get the heebie jeebies. Here’s everything you need to know to protect yourself and continue to get the benefits of your gym workouts:
Germ Zone: Free Weights, Machines, Exercise Balls
Cardio machines especially, are more likely to get wiped down then say, free weights, but that doesn’t mean they’re clean. For instance, people don’t usually think of wiping down a bike seat which has been found to have traces of staph, fungi, and yeast.
Fight it with wiping down equipment with disinfectant before and after use. If your gym doesn’t provide spray or wipes carry antibacterial gel and use it on your hands before and after your workout.
Germ Zone: Exercise Mat
Gyms rarely clean down each, individual mat properly which can lead to skin infections, athlete's foot, colds, flu, and Hepatitis A.
Fight it with bringing your own mat and to make sure to clean it after each use with a bleach-based wipe or a 60% alcohol disinfectant spray and let it air-dry. If you must use a gym-owned mat, sanitize it before use, or put a towel over it. You can even purchase non-slip yoga socks so you don’t have to workout barefoot.
Germ Zone: Gym Bag
Sure, most germs in your bag are your own and therefore harmless to you, but the problem lies on the outside of your bag. Setting your bag on a bench, locker, or floor can attract: staph, salmonella, E.coli, and pseudomonas, which can cause eye infections, says Charles Gerba PhD, environmental microbiologist at the University of Arizona.
Fight it with choosing a vinyl or plastic gym bag because germs and bacteria are less likely to stick to these materials, says Elaine L. Larson PhD, the associate dean for research at Columbia University School of Nursing. If you use a canvas or cloth bag, wash it once a week with hot water and bleach and then put the bag in the dryer for 45 minutes. Keep dirty clothes and sneakers in a plastic bag within your gym bag, that you change frequently. Swab your gym bag inside and out with disinfectant wipes before bringing it in the house.
Germ Zone: Crowded Areas and Group Classes
Classes tend to get over crowded, and with people breathing and sweating heavy germs are sure to be flying around.
Fight it with keeping your distance — try to keep reasonable space (for example, two arm lengths) between yourself and others. Try to use the gym during non-peak hours and choose a machine that’s not right beside someone else.
Germ Zone: Locker Room
The sweaty, humid locker room is a germ’s nirvana. Sneakers and other shoes that have been worn outdoors track in all kinds of bugs including, get this… fecal matter!which harbors organisms that can give you stomach flu and Hepatitis A. Before you sit on the bench naked here’s some food for thought: studies have detected traces of STD’s and vaginal yeast there. Ew!
Fight it with always wear flip-flops in the locker room and shower; sit on a towel, and keep your workout shoes for gym use only.
Germ Zone: Towel
You may think the towels they provide at the gym are clean, but most gyms use the same hamper to transport dirty towels and clean ones… Guess what that does?
Fight it with bringing your own towel of course! Mark one side with an X and make sure that is the only that side should make contact with gym equipment. Bring a separate towel for your shower — try an antibacterial one to reduce your risk for infection.
Germ Zone: Water Bottle AND Fountain
When you take a sip from your bottle germs move into your bottle from the rim, and they reproduce quickly. Using the bottle without washing it after just a few days can be the equivalent of drinking from a public swimming pool! As for the water fountain, fellow gym-members may put their mouth directly on the spout, some may even spit in it.
Fight it with bringing a reusable water bottle and filling it up at home. Wash it in the dishwasher daily and store it in the fridge — germs are less likely to form in cold conditions. Avoid bottles with a pull-up spout or a built-in straw. Instead, choose a widemouthed bottle with a screw cap.
Germ Zone: Pool
According to the Center for Disease Control, 62% of pool-related diarrhea outbreaks are the result of the chlorine-resistant pathogen cryptosporidium, which is spread by contaminated fecal matter. In addition, bacteria, such as pseudomonas, can cause ear and eye infections, says Elizabeth Scott PhD, co-director of the Simmons College Center for Hygiene and Health in Home and Community in Boston.
Fight it with your sense of smell. Chlorine releases its distinct scent as it reacts with microorganisms, so the stronger the smell, the dirtier the pool. Always wear goggles, swim cap, and earplugs when swimming.
Germ Zone: Shower
The gym shower is another humid germ-haven and is therefore full of fungi and bacteria that can cause athlete's foot, ringworm, and warts.
Fight it with showering as soon as you get home instead of at the gym. If you do shower at the gym, use antimicrobial soap, and wear flip-flops in the shower. Blow-dry your feet to make sure they're moisture-free.
Other things to keep in mind:
- Cover cuts or broken skin with a bandage before going to the gym.
- Wash your hands before and after your workout.
- Don't shave at the gym or immediately before going there because germs can enter your body through tiny nicks.
- Avoid touching your face.
- Wash your weight-lifting gloves regularly in hot water.
If you find a painful red spot or a bump It could be a MRSA infection. See a doctor immediately.
And last but not least — if you’re contagious STAY HOME! Don’t risk spreading infections and illness to others. There are plenty of great at-home workouts you can do while you heal. If you are an athlete with an infection or illness avoid competing until you have your doctor’s okay.
Resources: Fitness magazine, Better Health magazine