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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9/7/2010 9:20:27 AM

While I abide by the gyms policy of spraying and wiping down equipment, I wonder how effective this really is on those rubber grips that most equipment have. Seems to me they are like sponges, soaking up millions and millions of bacteria and germs and we just wipe the surface with a little bit of disenfectant spray on it?????


9/7/2010 8:55:28 AM

OMG! Here we come again...Nanny state...how in Earth we are going to get immune to bacteria if we are not in touch with them?
We have bacteria that lives in our stomach! and in many other parts of our bodies...
Why the allergies have raised...using to much antibacterial stuff! (Killing the good and the bad)
Why bacteria are getting resistant using to much antibacterial stuff
Why we get sick so often...our immune system don't recognize bacteria any more...
This doesn't mean we not take measure, should we do. wiping off the mat or the machine you are going to use before and after is enough...
Why are you trying to make of us an terrorize society...afraid of stupid thing over and over...
The more we resit the more they come to us!!! Have that on mind!


9/7/2010 8:51:32 AM

I can't vouch for the rest of the facility, but the treadmills and other workout equipment are constantly being cleaned by Pat at the Lake Geneva WI YMCA. Whenever I am running, he is there wiping. I do understand about the mats and the other "communal" pads and weights. I always bring my own mat and I use antibacterial gell after using the weights. By the way, the Y provides plenty of gel for its members!


9/7/2010 8:49:21 AM

MARGOTJI's SparkPage
I agree that people need to practice healthy hygiene but I also believe that it's possible to go too far. I'm not saying these recommendations are going to far but people need to use some common sense. Some exposure to bacteria etc is essential to develop an immune system. My husband grew up with parents who are neat freaks and they all get sick all the time. My parents had a very balanced approach and I rarely get sick and end up having to take care of my husband! LOL Obviously, that's just one example, but if you're that afraid of germs, wear a full body stocking and stay home.


9/7/2010 8:43:17 AM

CAROL3SAN's SparkPage
I'm glad the park is across the street from me with a nice walking path and nice outside gym equipment scattered along the way.


9/7/2010 8:42:18 AM

I quit my yoga studio because the props never seemed to get cleaned and I always came down with something a few days after the session. Bolsters, blankets, blocks, eye masks, etc. all got reused constantly and must have been full of bacteria. I never felt sick after hot yoga where we did not use the studio props.


9/7/2010 8:40:49 AM

I rely much more on soap than on any antibacterial products, so I'm happy just washing my hands before I touch my face, and taking a shower when I get home. I don't think there's a problem with being exposed to more people's germs - I'm fundamentally healthy and have a good immune system, so the more exposure the better.

I understand why so many gyms use antibacterial products, but the over use of them is just making the problem worse. Most of us have bodies that are capable of defending themselves against plain old bacteria. The few bacteria that manage to survive repeated exposure to antibacterial products are stronger and scarier and a different thing alltogether.


9/7/2010 8:26:54 AM

Plantar warts and athlete's foot are not caused by bacteria.


9/7/2010 8:14:07 AM

Since I have joined the gym I will now never go back to I have had viral meningitis, 2 sinus infections and another infection that caused me to be either hospitalized or on antibiotics. I try to spray and wipe down before and after I go on any equipment but have gotten sicker in the last 2 years then I have been in my life. I am joining a brand new gym and hopefully it will be much cleaner.


9/7/2010 8:08:47 AM

GYMRAT54's SparkPage
Our gym used to have paper towel rolls to use to wipe down equipment with the disinfectant cleaners. Now, we have small towels that get re-used again and again. I don't care much for that when they get too wet. It doesn't seem clean anymore.

I remember when a time when I used the mats at the gym, I noticed that my skin was developing an itchy rash. That's when I brought in a bath towel from home to lay over the mats. Didn't want to spray these mats - would take too long. I have a mat at home but have no intention of bringing it to the gym and toting it around the gym for the small number of exercises that were part of my workout. I would rather just do these exercises at home.

I really like the idea of wiping down the exercise machines down BEFORE you exercise to protect YOURSELF, not just afterwards to protect the NEXT person using it.

I have never liked the idea of laying my gym bag on the floor of the bathroom/changing room. Some changing rooms have a small bench and I lay it on that. Others don't have a bench. The hooks are not big enough to carry my bag. I have never gone barefoot there, either. I take my showers at home.


9/7/2010 8:00:48 AM

EDUCGRAD's SparkPage
we have antibacterial spray and paper towels to use


9/7/2010 7:58:44 AM

NDENUCCI's SparkPage
our gym uses paper towels that can be thrown away.


9/7/2010 7:48:33 AM

MAESW1's SparkPage
I make sure that I wipe the treadmill down after I use it - even in the areas that I may not have touched. I did notice that sometimes the towel is very went from previous uses when I grab 1 but I still add more disinfectant to it. I'll have to remember to wipe it down before I start. I'll have to watch the weight machines now since I plan to start to use them now. Maria


9/7/2010 7:46:25 AM

NDENUCCI's SparkPage
Good for you TRISHETH. sounds like you have a good running gym.but it is should also be common sense for the members too. They don't think of germs while sitting there, and they can also get them, not just give them. How do we know if they don't have leakage, or wiped good? seriously!!


9/7/2010 7:30:52 AM

I own a small gym. We have a rule that a towl must be placed on all seats and benches that clients occupy. We also have a few stations of disinfectant spray and cloth washers available for use and encourage clients to use them before and/or after use of equipment. Separate baskets are provided for clean and soiled cloths, and the soiled ones are collected regularly throughout the day. We also regularly clean the equipment ourselves. We have found that the majority of clients are grateful for and compliant with the rules, and the spray and towels..

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