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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3/18/2012 10:13:44 PM

When I started working at a local gym in 2005 they were using alcohol to clean off the equipment...My first job there was cleaning & with MRSA making a big splash around the country I recommended that we go to a product made by
Fuller Brush. It was a germicide & was approved for MRSA. We clean equipment regularly & have many spray bottles throughout the facility so patrons can clean up before & after their workouts.


3/18/2012 9:01:07 PM

My local gym has sanitizing wipes for cleaning equipment. I clean my hands, grab more wipes to clean the equipment, then clean my hands again. Only then will I use the equipment. I clean it again once I'm finished.

I NEVER set my purse on the floor. It goes on my lap or on a hook.
Ever hover in a stall and notice the gal next to you...with her pants sitting on the floor. Gross. I hike up my pants to they are flood pants before I hover.


3/18/2012 2:12:58 AM

SKIPSIDE's SparkPage
ditto to "rant" by SNUFFY-LAZ, 3/17/2012 1:45:14 PM


3/17/2012 11:20:51 PM

DEEEBEE's SparkPage
I wonder if our purses are so dirty because sometimes we have to set them on the floor??? I see a lot of purses on the floor next to wear women are sitting.


3/17/2012 9:43:48 PM

Ugh! Spray away those germs/


3/17/2012 6:00:46 PM

LYNCHD05's SparkPage
YUK! We really need to be aware of our exposure to germs but I am not going to stop exercising at my gym. I will just be very careful about washing properly when I am done. After going to the gym for 30 years I think my body can take exposure to some germs!


3/17/2012 4:22:37 PM

Very helpful article! Thanks for sharing!


3/17/2012 3:00:49 PM

JWOOLMAN's SparkPage
Yes, soap works very well. Actually, the other sanitizers are probably not used long enough to do much damage to the pathogens. You need to wash your hands while keeping them in contact with the soap for 12 to 30 seconds (estimates vary) to do a good job of rinsing off any problem microorganisms. Antimicrobial soaps are no more effective than regular soap, and with regular soap you don't have the risk of promoting antibiotic resistance. You know how medical folk swab your arm with alcohol before administering an injection? Actually, that doesn't make a dent in the microbial poulation because it's not done long enough. Not really less risky than just injecting through "dirty" skin...

So in a gym, other than some cleaning to make you more comfortable - concentrate on not letting your hands touch your eyes or mouth until you've have a chance to wash up (a good idea everywhere these days). That won't protect you against airborne pathogens, however, but that's true everywhere else as well. Certainly contact pathogens are more of a problem under gym conditions anyway.


3/17/2012 2:49:42 PM

JWOOLMAN's SparkPage
The reason we need to be more careful today is that we are exposed to a much wider variety of microorganisms, thanks to the ease of travel today. This is why the problem of antibiotic resistance spreads so fast - one little microbeastie accidentally mutates properly, shares its genetic material both within its own species and outside it (often resistance is carried in circular bits of DNA called plasmids in the cellular goop and other species can pick it up). So we are exposed to microbeasties that would have stayed contained in other communities, where residents would have developed reasonable immunity. One of the worst colds I ever had came from a friend who was taking care of her grandson from across the country, who had a sloppy cold. and had passed it along to her (who didn't believe in staying home when sick...). She and the kid dealt with it fine, but it hit me very hard. Plus we have some deadly mutations of common microbeasties such as E. coli today. Don't raise your kids in a bubble, but be careful.

I'm very susceptible and have learned to avoid even deli food and open bins in grocery stores - too many people do stupid things out of ignorance. The risk isn't worth it to me - I need to be alert to do my work, and need to work to pay my bills. I don't get paid just for showing up and don't get paid sick days (self-employed, paid for what I produce). Can't afford to be sick.

And if you think gyms are a problem - the worst place to be is a hospital. Regardless of their attempts to keep things sanitized, it's a losing battle. Antibiotic resistance spreads very easily in hospitals because so many species gather together in a hospital that otherwise would be far, far apart. So they can share resistance-carrying plasmids with wild abandon. Plus of course, there are a lot of sick people in hospitals... So your odds of being exposed to something beyond your immune system's ability to cope are much higher than normal. Same problem in doctor's waiting rooms, actually. Worst idea ever to replace home visits with dragging sick kids to an office.


3/17/2012 1:56:14 PM

Sometimes paranoia cracks me up. When we were growing up (older generations) we did not stress over such things. We played in the dirt, ate the hot bubbly tar off the road for gum, and I sure don't remember anyone getting sick over this stuff let alone things people panic over today. Some say, well our immune system is not as strong.
Over protection does not let our systems become stronger. When kids are growing up they should be playing in the dirt, sharing there toys with that snotty nosed kid down the street. We all will still get sick at some point, yes there are worries still that should be a concern. But that sterilizer stuff is used way WAY to much. Any doctor will tell you nothing beat soap and water. Wipe down that work out machine but don't live in fear of all you touch. It just might help you in the long run.


3/17/2012 1:45:14 PM

I rarely comment on these boards but from reading these I've got to say there is a definate over use of antibacterial sanitizers. Yes wipe equipment, no-one wants to share someone elses sweat & skin cells but as long as you wash and dry your hands properly before & after using the gym you should be safe from most germs unless you're in the habit of sucking your thumb or bitting your nails.
Also remember when using the hand sanitizsers, they only kill certain bacteria, usually the not exactly harmful ones. The real nasties that give you diarrhea and vomiting are often immune to the alcohol in these products and the only way to be safe is to physically wash them off. It really annoys me when I see mothers in toilets forgoing the handwashing facillities and instead squirting their childrens hand with a sanitizer which not only strips the oils from their young skin but by not washing, leaves them vunerable to norovirus & cdif.

Ok rant over.


3/17/2012 1:34:30 PM

PAMELAWH's SparkPage
i purchase a piece of workout equipment each year. i workout at home in my own gym. it provides me a better environment and the flexibility of choosing my workout time. i stopped going to a gym when my children were small and began purchasing workout equipment then.


3/17/2012 12:56:46 PM

RHEYNKLW's SparkPage
This article made my skin crawl in a major way, but I'm so glad I read it. I'm always diligent about wiping down post-use because I feel offended to the core when I see someone walk away from equipment without cleaning up after him or herself, but I've been slacking before I work out. Thanks!


3/17/2012 12:17:01 PM


Why do you think we have immune systems?


3/17/2012 12:12:52 PM

Ewwww! The cleaning bottles too?! I'm not a germ-a-phob but I definately think hand sanitizer and washing my hands before I leave are in my future.

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