We associate the gym with health, but in reality, it can be a hot spot for the types of bacteria and viruses that can cause severe sickness. Think about it. Most gyms are a revolving door of people of all ages, subtly (and sometimes not-so-subtly) covering everything in their bodily fluids.
For example, a 2016 laboratory-supported study commissioned by FitRated — a site that reviews fitness equipment — tested bacteria levels at three gyms. They had an independent lab take swabs off of 27 pieces of fitness equipment and test the samples for microbes. They discovered that exercise bikes had 39 times more bacteria than a cafeteria tray, free weights were crawling with an astounding 362 times more germs than a toilet seat, and the treadmill rolled in with 75 times more bad bugs than a public water faucet.
Other studies have shown that surfaces in the gym can harbor viruses like the rhinovirus, which can cause the common cold, and other more serious viruses that can spread illnesses like the flu.
Considering the recent global COVID-19 scare, a lot of gyms are either closing or on the brink of it. If your gym is still open, though, we suggest memorizing these 10 tips, meant to keep you healthy and hale, before you start sweating.
10 Gym Hygiene Tips
Tip #1: Wash your hands
Washing your hands thoroughly, which means scrubbing all parts of your hands for 20 seconds, is the most crucial step you can take to limit your exposure to bad bugs, says Sheena Malik, M.D., a board-certified family medicine physician in Los Angeles. Pay special attention to locker rooms and bathrooms, and wash your hands with soap and water thoroughly before and after going in these spaces. It's also especially important to clean your mitts after taking classes such as dance or martial arts, says Prentiss Rhodes, NASM-CPT, a master instructor with the National Academy of Sports Medicine.
Tip #2: Keep sanitizer handy
Another good idea is to have your own bottle of hand sanitizer with you at all times, says Dan Jonhenry, fitness director at Retro Fitness. "Just like you carry your water bottle throughout the gym, it's recommended to have a small bottle of hand sanitizer with you," he says. Make sure you pick an alcohol-based sanitizer that has at least 60% alcohol. Please also know that sanitizer isn't a foolproof method of fighting germs and in no way is a replacement to washing your hands.
Tip #3: Sharing isn't caring
Limiting how much you touch other people — especially strangers in public — is another way to keep infectious microbes off of your skin and out of your body. That means no fist-bumping or high-fiving, and you should probably skip the now-popular but forever-awkward elbow bump, too. Also, don't share any of your gear, like weight belts, gloves, or mats.
Tip #4: Be sure to wipe
"It's a good practice to be extra hygienic around surfaces that receive a lot of hand contact," says Rhodes. "For example, be sure to wipe down and clean your hands after using all weight equipment — free weights and machines — and cardio equipment. These are areas that require a little extra attention." Be sure to use universal cleaning wipes that have antibacterial and antiviral properties. (A lot of gyms provide these, but you can also bring your own.)
Tip #5: Bring clean towels
You can minimize contact with bacteria and viruses by laying a towel down on any bench you use. Do not use an old, unwashed towel. Bring a fresh one, and wash it after each use. Or, use the ones at the gym — just be sure that they wash them each time (seriously, ask.)
Tip #6: Put a cap on it
Avoiding touching your face is another top tip that people struggle to adhere too, especially when they're sweating bullets mid-workout. Wearing a hat or a headband will help keep sweat from pouring down your face, says Jonhenry. "You'll be much less likely to touch your face to wipe the sweat instinctively. If you do need to touch your face, use a (clean) towel and then immediately wash your hands," he says.
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Tip #7: Hit the Showers
Immediately after your workout, step into the gym-provided shower so you can soap up and wash away any malicious microbes. And be sure to toss your sweaty gym clothes into a plastic bag inside your gym duffel.
Tip #8: Don flip flops
Most people don't think they need to wear flip flops into the gym showers, but that warm, moist environment is an excellent breeding ground for fungi, bacteria, and viruses. These pesky pathogens can get into your system — especially if you have any small cuts or wounds on your feet — and cause an infection like athlete's foot, plantar warts, or even staph. Keep a clean pair of flip flops or shower shoes in your bag and make sure to slip them on before you step into a gym shower.
Tip #9: Wear clothes once
At some point, we've all been guilty of giving a once-worn pair of gym clothes a whiff to see if they pass the smell test. Even if they do, leave them in the laundry basket. Instead, immediately put your sweaty and smelly duds straight into the washer so you can remove any nasty microbes that could be lingering.
Tip #10 Stay at home
"If you are experiencing severe illness, stay away from common areas unless it is necessary," says Rhodes. "The first thing you should do if you're feeling sick is to take a pass on the gym for the day (or a week in today's current climate). There's a good chance you'd unconsciously touch your face and then a piece of equipment, possibly transferring your sickness to someone else." While recovering at home, tailor your workouts to the severity of your illness, says Jonhenry. "Stretching and light exercise can help keep you feeling strong, but be careful about pushing yourself too hard. Of course, healthy eating and getting plenty of rest should be part of your routine."