Where They Lurk & How to Avoid Them
— By Melissa Rudy, Staff Writer
You hit the gym to improve your fitness, not to pick up sickness. But with the combination of sweat, humidity, shared equipment and confined spaces, health clubs can be hotbeds for germs. From the common cold to hepatitis A to Novovirus, there could be dozens of bacteria and viruses lurking in, on and around your favorite workout gear—some of which can live for days on hard surfaces. A study published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine found that 63 percent of workout equipment was contaminated with rhinoviruses (RVs), which are known to cause the common cold as well as upper and lower respiratory tract infections.
This doesn’t mean you should stop going to the gym—the benefits far outweigh the risks. With the right awareness and precautions, you can still get your sweat on without bringing home any unwelcome companions. The first step to avoiding gym germs is knowing where they live. Below are some of their favorite health club hangouts, along with precautions you can take to protect yourself.
Hotspot #1: Water Fountains
Studies have found that water fountains can actually harbor more bacteria than toilets, as their wet surface makes them a breeding ground for germs. The basin is most likely to be contaminated, but the handle may also contain some nasty microbes.
The safest way to hydrate is to bring your own water bottle. If you must use the fountain, follow these precautions: Turn it on for a few seconds before drinking from it, don’t let your mouth come in direct contact with the spigot, touch only the handle and wash your hands afterward.
Hotspot #2: Locker Rooms and Showers
Germs thrive in wet, humid areas–putting locker rooms and showers right in the danger zone. The biggest threat is Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a bacterium that can cause skin infections. Showers can also pass along warts, ringworm, strep, athlete’s foot and other not-so-fun fungi.
The best way to stay safe is to shower at home—but if you must lather up in the locker room, wear flip-flops to avoid coming in direct contact with floor-dwelling microbes (and to prevent slipping). Other best practices include bringing your own antimicrobial soap and shampoo, drying your feet thoroughly after showering, and wearing a towel when sitting in the steam room or sauna.
Hotspot #3: Yoga Mats
Next time you’re doing crunches or settling into your favorite stretch, consider that your exercise mat most likely absorbed the sweat and germs of whoever last sweated on it. The best precaution is to bring your own mat. If you must use a shared mat, wipe it down with a disinfecting spray before and after each use, and place a towel on the mat as an extra germ barrier.
Hotspot #4: Cardio Machines
Treadmills, ellipticals and stationary bikes are great for burning calories, but the trade-off could be a burning fever later. To reduce the threat, use hand sanitizer after your workout. Most gyms provide sanitizing spray to wipe down machines before and after each use.
Hotspot #5: Weight Machines & Free Weights
As people do full-body exercises with shared weight machines, there’s a bigger chance of spreading germ-filled sweat. Again, sanitizer is the best defense: Spray down and wipe each machine before and after each use, and apply hand sanitizer between sets.
Hotspot #6: Gym Bags
In addition to clothes and gear, your gym bag could pick up some unwelcome passengers—like E. coli, Norovirus and staph—through contact with benches and floors. To prevent this, choose a bag in a material that’s less germ-friendly, such as plastic or vinyl, and wipe it down with disinfecting spray when you get home. Store sweaty clothes in a separate plastic bag.
Hotspot #7: Towels
Even if the gym’s towels have been washed, they could have picked up bacteria or viruses from baskets, benches or lockers. To stay clean, dry and germ-free, bring your own towels from home: One to absorb sweat during workouts and another if you’re showering.
Quick Tips for Germ-Free Workouts
- Before choosing a new gym, take a tour and check to make sure it’s clean and well-ventilated. Ask about the gym’s policies for day-to-day cleaning of equipment and machines.
- Keep any cuts covered with a moisture-resistant bandage during workouts. Most infections enter the skin through lacerations.
- Bring your own water bottle, mat, towels, boxing gloves and toiletries.
- Wipe down all cardio and weight machines with sanitizing spray before and after using.
- Wear flip-flops in the shower and locker room.
- Wear a towel when sitting in the steam room or sauna.
- Even if you plan to shower at home, wash your hands before leaving the gym.
- Store sweaty workout clothes separately from other items.
- Spray your gym bag with sanitizing spray and wipe it down after each use.
- If you notice any skin irritations, such as a rash or red, painful area, contact a doctor to check for possible infection.