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Germs at the Gym

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The Dirtiest Spots at the Gym

You hit the gym regularly to be healthy and fit. Yet you may be getting more than flat abs and strong arms there. Gyms are hotbeds of germ activity, researchers say. Norovirus, which causes stomach pain, vomiting, and diarrhea, can survive for a month on the surface of exercise machines. The fungi responsible for foot infections multiply at a blinding pace in the shower. And microbes like MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can lead to dangerous skin infections, lurk in the locker room. To help you stay safe, FITNESS asked top experts to ID the biggest danger zones in the gym and to share the best germ-beating strategies.

Hot Spot: Free Weights, Weight Machines, Exercise Balls

Germ Meter = High

Because so many people handle it, this equipment is rife with bugs and viruses that can lead to colds and other infections. "I've even found MRSA on an exercise ball in a gym," says Philip Tierno Jr., PhD, a clinical professor of microbiology and pathology at NYU Medical School and the author of The Secret Life of Germs.

Germ Warfare

Wipe equipment with disinfectant before and after you use it. No spray at your gym? Carry antibacterial gel and rub it on your hands before and after your workout.

Hot Spot: Locker Room

Germ Meter = High

The sweaty, humid locker room is the perfect petri dish for nasty buggers such as staph, strep, and MRSA, Tierno says. The danger starts at ground level. From outdoors, sneakers and other shoes track in fecal matter (eew!), which harbors organisms that can give you stomach flu and hepatitis A. And before you sit on the bench naked, consider this: Tierno's studies have detected traces of vaginal yeast there, which can put you at risk for an infection.

Germ Warfare

Always wear flip-flops in the locker room and shower; avoid sitting on the bench unclothed.

Hot Spot: Exercise Mat

Germ Meter = High

As you stretch, strike a yoga pose, or take a group exercise class, you could be lying in a slew of microbes that can cause skin infections, athlete's foot, colds and flu, and hepatitis A.

Germ Warfare

Bring your own mat and don't share it. After each use, clean the mat with a bleach-based wipe or a 60 percent alcohol disinfectant spray and let it air-dry.

More Germ Hot Spots

Hot Spot: Gym Bag

Germ Meter = High

While most of the germs in your gym bag are your own, and therefore harmless to you, disease-causing microbes can latch on every time you place it on a bench, in a locker, or on the floor. The most common critters to hitch a ride: staph, salmonella, E. coli, and pseudomonas, which can cause eye infections, says Charles Gerba, PhD, an environmental microbiologist at the University of Arizona.

Germ Warfare

Choose vinyl or plastic gym bags. Germs and bacteria are less likely to adhere to these materials, says Elaine L. Larson, PhD, the associate dean for research at Columbia University School of Nursing. Keep dirty clothes and sneakers in a separate compartment or stash them in a plastic bag. At home, swab your gym bag inside and out with disinfectant wipes. If you use a canvas or cloth tote, toss it in the washing machine once a week. Use hot water and a bleach or peroxide-based detergent and then put the bag in the dryer for 45 minutes.

Hot Spot: Towel

Germ Meter = High

You grab a "clean" towel from the pile at the gym. What you can't see is that the fibers may be teeming with E. coli or MRSA. "Most gyms use the same hamper to transport dirty towels and clean ones," Tierno says.

Germ Warfare

Bring your own towel, marked with an X on one side with a permanent marker, Tierno advises; only that side should make contact with gym machines. Use the unmarked side to wipe sweat off yourself. Bring a separate towel if you're showering at the gym. Try an antimicrobial one, available at sporting goods stores, to reduce your risk for infection.

Hot Spot: Water Bottle

Germ Meter = Medium

When you take a sip of H2O during your workout, germs move into your bottle from the rim, and they reproduce quickly. Hundreds of thousands of bacteria can lurk at the bottom; using the bottle after just a few days of not washing it can be the equivalent of drinking from a public swimming pool, Larson says.

Germ Warfare

Avoid bottles with a pull-up spout or a built-in straw. Instead, choose a widemouthed bottle with a screw cap. Wash it in the dishwasher daily and store it in the fridge, Larson suggests. Germs are more likely to form when the bottle is warm.

Hot Spot: Cardio Machines

Germ Meter = Medium

Sweaty treadmills, ellipticals, and Spinning bikes are more likely to get wiped down after use than free weights are, experts say, but that doesn't mean these machines are clean. In a study published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine, 63 percent of machines that had been disinfected still had traces of rhinovirus, which causes the common cold. And Tierno's research found staph, fungi, and yeast on gym bike seats.

Germ Warfare

Wipe down machines and seats thoroughly with disinfectant before and after you use them.

Hot Spot: Pool

Germ Meter = High

According to the Centers for Disease Control, 62 percent of pool-related diarrhea outbreaks are the result of the chlorine-resistant pathogen cryptosporidium, which is spread by contaminated fecal matter. In addition, bacteria, such as pseudomonas, can cause ear and eye infections, says Elizabeth Scott, PhD, a codirector of the Simmons College Center for Hygiene and Health in Home and Community in Boston.

Germ Warfare

Your gym should post data on the pH testing and cleaning of the pool, which is supposed to be done throughout the day. If that info isn't available, let your nose be your guide: Because chlorine releases its distinct smell as it reacts with microorganisms, the stronger the chlorine scent, the dirtier the pool. Always wear goggles and a swim cap or earplugs in the water.

Hot Spot: Shower

Germ Meter = High

The gym shower stall is riddled with fungi and organisms that can cause infections, like athlete's foot, ringworm, and warts.

Germ Warfare

Shower at home as soon as you get in the door, Tierno advises. Hanging out in sweaty workout clothes may lead to breakouts. If you do shower at the gym, use antimicrobial soap. Never shave there, because bugs can enter your body through tiny nicks. Blow-dry your feet to make sure they're moisture-free.

How to Be Germ-Free

Squeaky-Clean Strategies

Follow this quick checklist to stay healthy while you work out.

  • Cover any cuts or broken skin with a bandage before you go to the gym.
  • Wash your hands before and after your workout.
  • Wipe down machines before and after use.
  • Bring your own water bottle, towels, and exercise mat.
  • Never share your towels.
  • Don't sit on the locker-room bench naked.
  • Always wear flip-flops in the locker room and shower.
  • Don't shave at the gym or immediately before going there.
  • Whenever possible, shower at home after your workout.
  • Keep dirty clothes and sneakers in separate gym bag compartments or place sweaty duds in a plastic bag.
  • Wipe down your gym bag with a disinfectant spray and wash gym clothes after each use.
  • Examine your skin weekly. If you find a painful red spot or a bump, see a doc. It could be a MRSA infection, which needs immediate treatment.

Originally published in FITNESS magazine, October 2012.

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