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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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 purselugging 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 hookuse them!
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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