It’s not hard to find reasons to skip a gym session, particularly when it’s been a long day, your favorite TV show’s on, and the couch feels extra-comfortable. But few of us would list health as a reason not to go. After all, exercising is one of the best things we can do for our physical and emotional well-being. Plus, the subsequent rush of endorphins is a fun reward for our efforts that lasts beyond the workout.
Unfortunately, we take more than just that happy hormonal surge home with us upon leaving the gym. I’m talking about the bacteria and viruses that thrive in warm, moist environments, like the surfaces of exercise equipment, floor mats, and shower stalls. And if we’re not careful during and after our workouts, hitting the gym can weaken health, rather than improve it. There are a number of ailments we can pick up simply by using dumbbells or changing in the locker room.
Colds and Flu
There are tons of germs lurking all over the gym, from the weights machines to the stretching mats. Even if you’re diligent about wiping everything you touch with antiseptic spray or wipes (which you should be), it won’t get rid of everything. A 2006 study published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine tested two fitness centers for lingering bacteria and viruses over the course of a week. Every machine was disinfected twice a day and tested before and after. Researchers found that 63 percent of the equipment had traces of rhinoviruses, which are the culprits behind the common cold. Their findings also suggested that the twice-daily cleaning didn’t make a significant impact on the viral presence. With so many viruses flying through the air, thanks to sweat and sneezes (not to mention the amount of people in such close quarters), there’s always some risk of illness.
Fungal Infections and Warts
Fungi are happiest in warm and wet places, which is why fungal skin infections are one of the more prevalent afflictions among gymgoers. The most common is athlete’s foot, which is characterized by cracked, itching, and inflamed skin between the toes. Plantar warts, caused by human papillomavirus (HPV), pop up on foot soles. Both of these occur when feet come into contact with moist, infected surfaces, such as locker room floors, shower floors, and indoor swimming pools. Skin-to-skin contact with the infected area (or touching something that’s had contact with the area, like socks or towels) can cause infection as well. Athlete’s foot and plantar warts spread easily, and with the former, you’re more likely to get it again once you’ve had it the first time.
Ringworm is a fungal infection like athlete’s foot, except it occurs on the body and displays itself as a red ring of blisters or raised skin. It’s spread via towels, gym equipment, and clothes.
Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is a particularly scary kind of staph infection because, while many staph infections are treated with antibiotics, MRSA shows resistance to even the strongest antibiotics, making it a “superbug,” that can infect various parts of the body, such as the skin, lungs, urinary tract, and bloodstream. Because MRSA is so difficult to treat, it can prove deadly in some individuals. Its infection rate is also higher among younger generations than other varieties of staph bacteria are. You can get it from direct contact with an infected individual or by touching an object that person has handled, like gym equipment or towels. According to WebMD, one in one hundred people carry the bacteria but don’t necessarily get sick. MRSA starts out looking like a regular staph infection (small red bumps that are warm, painful, and/or pus-filled), but quickly looks worse in a matter of days.
The Keys to Prevention
This doesn’t mean that walking into the gym is a surefire way to catch any of these ailments. You can considerably reduce the likelihood with preventative measures.
- Keep a barrier between you and the gym. That means putting a towel down on gym equipment, never going barefoot in the locker room or shower stalls (wear flip-flops instead), and wiping down the machines before and after use.
- Wash up after working out. If you can’t shower, at least wash your hands before you leave. Throw your clothes and towels in the washer, too.
- Avoid touching your face during a gym session. It transfers germs to your mouth, nose, and eyes, which invites the onset of colds and the flu.
- Make sure any cuts or open wounds are covered up with a clean bandage, unless you’re curious about what MRSA’s like.
- Sweaty feet lead to athlete’s foot, so, after showering, dry your feet thoroughly with a clean towel. If you’re prone to the fungal infection, consider sprinkling antifungal powder in your shoes as a precaution. Change socks routinely if your feet get especially warm, and once you’re done working out, change immediately out of your gym shoes.
- The drinking fountain hosts a plethora of bacteria and viruses, so bring your own bottle of water from home.
Don’t let these potential afflictions stop you from working out on a regular basis. Just remember that the gym’s not nearly as clean as you might think. ABC News conducted swab tests on gyms in 2006 and found that equipment used in quick rotation by multiple people (like dumbbells) and areas where people sit (like weight benches or stationary bikes) were particularly germ-filled. Always give equipment like this a quick wipe-down with antiseptic spray before touching it. However, ABC News found that the riskiest place of all was the shower floor, so whatever you do, don’t enter the stalls barefoot. You may leave behind the stink of the gym in the shower, but you’ll take foot fungi with you—which would you rather have?
Despite all its health hazards, going to the gym and getting your sweat on is still one of the best things you can do for your body. You just have to make sure no one else’s sweat gets on you in the process.
Updated January 12, 2011