It’s a place designed to help you get healthy, but ironically the gym can also make you sick. A recent hygiene study of a family fitness center in Ohio analyzed more than 100 samples from various locations in the gym and found that the most contaminated surfaces were door handles, shower floors, free weight benches, and dumbbells.
Tests done on three separate days found “extremely high” levels of germs on these surfaces. The study, funded by Coverall, a cleaning-product company, also found worrisome levels of germs on the front desk check-in area, water fountains, and alarmingly, the gym’s childcare area.
Gyms and recreational facilities rank as one of the most germy-laden environments, with 28 percent of surfaces testing positive for contamination, according to an analysis by Dr. Charles Gerba, a professor of microbiology at the University of Arizona who has published hundreds of scientific papers on infectious diseases and germs.
Among the most dangerous gym germs are the norovirus—the leading cause of acute gastroenteritis—E. coli (a common cause of food poisoning), and the deadly superbug MRSA, which triggers hard-to-treat infections, reports Thomas Tallman, MD, a staff physician in the emergency department of the Cleveland Clinic who wasn’t involved with the hygiene study.
“Another locker room risk is Klebsiella pneumonia, which causes pneumonia, urinary tract infections, and bloodstream infections,” adds Dr. Tallman. A particularly dangerous form of this bacteria, known as CRKP (carbapenem-resistant Klebsiella pneumonia), is resistant to almost all antibiotics.
Fortunately, there are steps you can take to defend yourself from the germs lurking at your fitness facility. Load up on hand sanitizer gel and antibacterial wipes, and get ready to work up a sweat.
Water fountains, particularly their handles, can become contaminated by a variety of germs, including norovirus, which can survive for up to 4 weeks on an infected surface, says Dr. Gerba. Some people boost the risk by touching the spout with their mouths, which can also lead to transmission.
Stay healthy: Carry portable alcoholic wipes and clean the handle and spout before you drink. An even safer solution is to carry your own water bottle and skip the fountain entirely, says Dr. Tallman.
A water bottle saves you from risking a drink out of a contaminated water fountain, but if you touch the spout of your water bottle with germy hands you may not be much better off.
Stay healthy: Choose a bottle that doesn’t require you to bring your fingers close to the drinking surface, such as one with a nipple you can pull open with your mouth. If you choose a reusable bottle, be sure to clean it after each use with hot, soapy water.
Zumba, hot yoga, group Pilates class, or any other group fitness situation lends itself to germs (especially influenza) spreading through simply inhaling water droplets exhaled by your fellow workout buddies.
Stay healthy: Keep at least six feet away from anyone who’s coughing or may be contagious. Get a flu vaccination during flu season and avoid touching your face (one way germs enter your system) until you can wash your hands with soap and water or, at a minimum, use a sanitizer hand gel, recommends Dr. Gerba.
Only you know where your gym bag has been—but chances are, it has come into contact with germs, whether you’ve set it on the bathroom floor or stuffed it into a locker. Once germs latch on to your gym bag, it’s easy for them to make the journey to your home.
Stay healthy: Keep an antibacterial spray in your gym bag or the trunk of your car and spray the outside of your bag before you bring it into your home. And don’t put your shoes in your gym bag—a study by Dr. Gerba, found that shoes can harbor nine different types of microbes that cause intestinal, urinary, eye, lung, and blood infections
In his study, which was sponsored by the Rockport Company, all but one of the shoes analyzed were also contaminated with coliform bacteria (originating in feces), with the average shoe containing a whopping 421,000 bacteria units per centimeter. And even the insides of the shoes were contaminated, harboring an average of 2,887 bacterial units.
Dr. Tallman notes that any high-contact surface is a risk—since 80% of infectious diseases are spread by direct or indirect hand contact—and this can include gym mats. In addition, some podiatrists and dermatologists report a spike in athlete’s foot, fungal infections and plantar warts linked to using dirty communal mats during barefoot yoga routines, according to the New York Times. Since cleaning dozens of exercise mats regularly is a time-consuming chore, gyms aren’t always as diligent as they should be about keeping them hygienic, cautions Dr. Tallman.
Stay healthy: Your best bet is to bring your own mat and avoid barefoot workouts, says Dr. Tallman. If you do use a public mat, sanitize with an antibacterial wipe or hand gel. Since the spongy surface can be tricky to disinfect thoroughly, add another layer of protection by covering the mat with a clean towel. Several companies sell nonslip socks and shoes specifically designed for yoga, as a safer alternative to barefoot workouts..
Saunas and steam rooms are the perfect place to relax after a tough workout – but don’t go barefoot or you might find yourself facing a less-than-relaxing foot infection. Even if the air is hot, the warm floors of saunas and steam rooms can still allow the fungus that causes athlete’s foot to flourish.
Also avoid sitting naked on wooden benches, which can harbor nasty germs, including human papillomavirus (HPV), warns Dr. Tallman. HPV, the most common sexually transmitted disease, causes genital warts and certain cancers.
Stay healthy: There’s no need to go completely buff in the sauna: sport a bathing suit or sit on a towel. Wear your flip flops to protect your feet from itchy fungal infections.
The same soft, foamy materials that make cycling bike seats and handlebars comfortable can also contain germs like MRSA and E. coli, reports Dr. Tallman. “This type of material acts like a sponge and frequently becomes contaminated.”
Stay healthy: Antibacterial wipes can kill up to 99 percent of surface bacteria, notes Dr. Tallman; however, it may be more difficult to disinfect spongy surfaces using wipes alone. Always wash your hands with soap and water immediately after class, and consider investing in sanitary handlebar covers if you want extra protection. Since bacteria can transfer to your clothes during a workout, be sure to toss your gym outfit in the laundry. Lastly, take the time for a thorough shower—you’ll be washing away more than just sweat.
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