5 Dirty Secrets about Your Workouts

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5 Shocking Health Risks for Gym Goers

Written by Jennipher Walters, Certified Personal Trainer

We normally think of a health club or the gym as a healthy place to be. After all, working out boosts your immune system, burns calories, builds strength and helps you feel great! You may not have thought about it, but just like any public place, your gym can be a breeding ground for germs, dirt and other icky things that can take the fun--and the health--out of your workouts.

With many people coming in and out, touching multiple surfaces and sweating in close proximity to one another, these exercise environments can are the ideal breeding ground for all sorts of bugs. Here are 5 "dirty" situations you may find yourself in at the gym and some tips to protect your body.

Yoga and Exercise Mats

Most of us spray down our yoga or exercise mat before or after use, but that may not always keep skin (which is usually exposed at the gym) from coming in contact with bacteria. In 2006, the New York Times reported that podiatrists were increasingly diagnosing athlete's foot and plantar warts among patients who practiced Pilates and yoga.

Protect Yourself: This may seem like common sense, but don't be afraid to bring your own mat when you go to a mind-body class or are exercising your abs at the gym. When you use your own mat, you know exactly where it's been and who's been on it. And be sure to clean your mat regularly with a mat cleaner to help kill germs. If you prefer to use the mats at the gym, wipe yours down with cleaner before you use it--not just after you're done.

Dirty Buds

No, I don't mean your buddies who like to crack jokes in group cycling—I mean your ear buds! A recent study published in the Online Journal of Health and Allied Sciences found that using your ear buds regularly can increase bacterial growth in your ear, which can result in painful ear infections. Yuck!

Protect Yourself: The number one way to reduce ear bacteria on your ear buds is to never share them with others. When you do swap ear buds with a friend, you can transfer bacteria to each other's ear canals. So be sure to wear your own ear buds at all times! After each use, store them in a cloth bag to keep them dry and clean. You should also regularly clean your ear buds with a drop of alcohol on a cotton ball or swab (or follow manufacturer's instructions). If you have trouble remembering to clean your ear buds, try making it a habit. For example, I clean mine each week when I launder my workout clothes.

Communal Equipment

While there's nothing inherently gross about sweat, it is a mechanism for bacteria to move from hand to dumbbell to BOSU to elliptical handles. So, where there's been sweat, there are probably germs. In fact, a study of sports equipment at two fitness centers in a military community published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine in 2006 found that benign bacteria and the rhinovirus, which causes the common cold, were on 63% of equipment surfaces that had contact with hands. Weight equipment was significantly more contaminated than aerobic equipment, according to the study. (After all, how often do you see people wiping down dumbbells after each use? Ew!)

Protect Yourself: Be sure to wipe down any equipment you use before and after use. All health clubs should have a disinfecting spray or wipes that you can use. And ask your club's staff what their cleaning protocols are. Take your business elsewhere if they can't tell you.

Locker Room Floors

Most of us know to wear flip-flops in the shower to prevent picking up foot fungus, but did you know that bacteria lurks on almost all floor areas of the locker room floor—tiled or carpeted? Even if your health club looks immaculate, athlete's foot (called tinea pedis), Onychomycosis (causes yellow and brittle nails) or human papillomavirus, which causes plantar warts, could still be on the floor.

Protect Yourself: Don't let your bare feet hit the ground at the health club. Period. Keep wearing those flip-flops in the shower and all around the locker room. Always wash and dry your feet thoroughly, consider using anti-fungal powder in your workout shoes and wear synthetic socks that you change often. Also, be sure not to dry off with a towel that dropped on the floor, especially if you have an open cut. Just a brief bit of contact can transfer bacteria to you, so the five-second rule does not apply here!

Bottom of Your Gym Bag

Back in 2006, ABC News ran an investigative report that found fecal bacteria and other dangerous germs on the bottom of women's purses. Although gym bags haven't been studied by scientists (yet!), many of us who frequent the gym treat our gym bags like a purse—lugging it here and there, from the club bathroom to the locker to the car. So it's not hard to see how the purse research applies, right? The ABC News report found bacteria that can cause skin infections along with other germs like cold viruses and other viruses that cause not-so-fun things like diarrhea.

Protect Yourself: Always be aware of where your gym bag lands. Try to always keep your bag off the floor, especially in the bathroom and locker room, as often as you can. Most bathrooms and lockers have a hook—use them!

Your Hands and Clothes

Be sure to wash your hands for at least 15 seconds before and after workouts, and do your laundry often. Wet, dirty clothes can be a breeding group for germs! Follow these tips to be safer and more protected in the gym. And, remember that regular exercise keeps your immune system strong! Just be smart, safe and sanitary about it!

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Member Comments on this Slideshow

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12/19/2014 11:19:39 AM

-RUBIES-'s SparkPage
I got an ugly fungus/rash in not one, but two spots on my "face" from the gym. Not a good look!

I've gone to the doctor and am currently being treated for it. It takes approximately a month before it goes away. What makes it so bad, they are the size of a quarter. Again, not a good look. Yuck!


10/14/2014 6:25:58 PM

APONI_KB's SparkPage
wait you only wash your workout clothes once a week?



10/14/2014 4:54:17 PM

MKIRKLE's SparkPage
These are some of the reasons I do not use gyms.


10/14/2014 3:46:32 PM

I don't disinfect dumbbells because that's going a little overboard in my mind. I don't walk around my office disinfecting doorknobs, either.

This boils down to personal responsibility. Wash your hands frequently. And, to quote my local health department, if you want to cut down MRSA, quit picking your nose. There are bacteria that are fairly benign when they're where they belong, but they can wreak havoc in the wrong area of our bodies or for an immune-compromised person. But that doesn't mean the rest of us need to quake in fear just because those microbes are out there.


10/14/2014 2:10:36 PM

I hadn't thought about the gym bag or the carpet. The last gym that I belonged to did not have hooks in the shower, so I bought my own over the door hook at the dollar store.


10/14/2014 1:07:21 PM

I don't go to the gym anyway. I workout for free! I used to go to planet fitness though and they made everyone wipe down equipment after use. That doesn't mean they did.


10/14/2014 11:31:58 AM

NSCARNEY's SparkPage
Now I'm going to be paranoid......


10/14/2014 11:23:32 AM

I never wear flip flops in the locker room. Nothing bad has ever happened.


10/14/2014 9:53:43 AM

GENFINCH's SparkPage
I NEVER do any of these things and I'm still alive. I suppose an immune system helps. (And not disinfecting everything in sight helps to keep it on its toes)


8/13/2014 10:01:14 PM

Good article! I practice most of these!


8/13/2014 4:48:33 PM

Thanks, this is a great reminder to pay better attention to what I'm doing!


8/13/2014 2:17:40 PM

I was surprised that the children's daycare room was not mentioned ! It seems a breeding ground also.


8/13/2014 5:54:28 AM

Watch the razors at the bottom of your gym bag. Change often! Old blades can cause nicks and transfer those bugs into your body. I have seen some bad MRSA infections from some benign cut with an old razor!


8/13/2014 1:04:19 AM

Wear synthetic socks? Really? I would have thought that a cotton athletic sock would have been the way to go. They cushion your feet, protect from blisters and kept your feet try like a towel. No one I know wears their synthetic dress socks to go work out. How odd.


8/30/2013 12:36:50 AM

For the ultimate personal AND fitness equipment protection, check out the SHIELD at http://ironfitnessequipment.com No sprays, no wipes, no chemicals or towels. Share the equipment, not the GERMS!

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