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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9/12/2010 4:43:36 PM

RAINEY231's SparkPage
Recently, I returned to an exercise club and I've been wearing gloves when exercising on machines.


9/10/2010 5:23:59 AM

Every gym should be required to have "steam stations", similar to a central vacuum, where patrons can easily access a steam-vapor machine and do a 1-minute 250 degree sanitize, odor eliminate, kill germs, virus, bacteria, etc. without harsh chemicals or toxic residue.
This alternative clean method should be required by all public facilities, restrooms, restaurants, on tables, bars, chairs, booths, DRINKING FOUNTAINS, doorknobs, schools, etc. Check out the steamers at sargent steam. I have one for my home and its fabulous.


9/8/2010 11:01:34 PM

I go to the gym. Its just a few block away I'm in and out and alway take a bottle of water with.. As alway procausion should be taken at all times .. Must people forget about washing hand and the machines.. So I would whip before and after my uses of it.. And Colds, either sinus or others anytime you have a measure of people in a place.. You are going to have germs.. I guess people just need to be reminded.. dua..


9/8/2010 11:13:09 AM

SUNSET09's SparkPage
I wash the machines before and after I use them and so glad these things are normally provided for everyone's use. This is in any public environment. Be mindful for yourself adn everyone else!


9/8/2010 12:46:07 AM

BOBF15's SparkPage
I have a background in Public Health, BS degree, no not an expert, but some confuse aesthetics with sanitation.

A balance is necessary as many stated, and anti-bacterial soaps have toxins in them.

Think about this, when you apply anything to your skin, where does it go? Does it evaporate, slough off eventually, or get absorbed by the skin. Absorbed! Then what?

It will likely be transported by the blood to the liver to have the foreign substance removed. You know all the names of things you have a hard time pronouncing on the label, yes, your liver has just as hard a time removing them as you and I do pronouncing them.

Folks we do have an immune system and if you are healthy, it does quite nicely at destroying bacteria. Give it a fighting chance. Use common sense and don't over do it as far as letting in harmful bacteria, but neither become a germ-o-phobe.


9/8/2010 12:29:15 AM

Wash your hands!!


9/8/2010 12:15:03 AM

As a nurse and mother of a child who has had a liver transplant and is therefore very immune supressed I have to agree that common sense is best. I have never sheltered my daughter from anything and let her immune system build naturally. We have been living in Hongkong(which can be quite dirty in parts) now for nearly 4 years and she is yet to even get a cough or cold. Aside from common sense hand washing before meals and after the bathroom we do nothing else. Those antibacterial wipes can cause more problems than they cure. It always amazes me too that those who are constantly complaining of getting sick are the ones who go around 'sterilising' their lives. I guess it is the chicken or the egg question again.....


9/7/2010 9:41:43 PM

AVOPAT3's SparkPage
Make sure to take your own water bottle with you, I forgot mine and got a drink from the water fountain after working out....Big Mistake. I woke up that night the sickest I have ever been in my life, after that, I never stepped foot in that gym again, I prefer to workout at home and fore go having that experience ever again.


9/7/2010 9:15:38 PM

CHRIS3874's SparkPage
Well I took karate for 14 years and nobody wore flipflops - fortunately nobody got anything EVER go figure.


9/7/2010 8:55:09 PM

DJ4HEALTH's SparkPage
I got sick in the gym at a military base and they have wipes to use on the equipment too. It had to be in the air because I got it in the sinuses but after that I was fine after getting antibiotics to get rid of it. I don't have a good immune system so I am real careful when I go there. Even wipe down the equipment with the wipes that they provide for us. Most times I don't take a shower there because I like my shower better and with getting fungus at the gym is no fun, So I just take one after I get home unless I have others places to go. I always wear flip-flops in the ladies locker room and place a towel on the bench when I go to sit down to dress.


9/7/2010 7:40:46 PM

It always amazes me how many people walk around the locker room without anything on their feet. Totally gross. And in general nothing grosses me out. Used bandaids in the hot tub do it too.

But bare feet in the locker room? EWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW!


9/7/2010 6:32:07 PM

Carmen, I'm with you on that! I do believe in cleanliness, but not germ-free-ness. The folks I know who are germaphobes are invariably sick far more than I. As others said, common sense rules, not anti-bacterial soap!


9/7/2010 6:01:24 PM

Have you noticed how the people who seem to always get sick are the ones who worry about germs a lot? I wash my hands, wash my clothes, wipe down the equipment, don't lick my dumbells, and I really don't worry about germs, and I rarely even get a cold. Germs are a part of life. I truly believe that Americans are huge germophobes created by the parmaceutical/anti-bacterial industry. How would they sell their stuff if people weren't afraid all the time? Regular soap is fine, and the overuse of all that stuff makes the really bad bacteria strains resistant. Get a grip, people.


9/7/2010 3:26:52 PM

Use common sense - a cheap pair of flip flops work great in a public shower!
Lead by example - make sure YOU wipe off the equipment after you use it!


9/7/2010 2:46:31 PM

I am sure health clubs are full of bad things. I truly believe I contracted a staph infection from our health club. Now, I try to touch as few things there as possible and wipe down the treadmill before and after I use it.

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