How to Stay Germ-Free at the Gym
Make sure your workout works for — not against — your health
You’re on the treadmill logging your usual indoor mileage while the winter winds howl outside, and the guy next to you starts hacking up a lung. Sound familiar? Gyms are breeding grounds for cold and flu viruses: think bronchitis, strep throat or the norovirus that you hear about on cruise ships. Because of shared surfaces and heavy foot traffic, gyms can harbor all sorts of nasty stuff. But that doesn’t mean you have to get sick. Here’s what you should know when it comes to being germ-free at the gym.
Let’s start with what the gym should be doing to keep you healthy. A clean gym should provide:
- A water cooler that requires the use of cups or water bottles
- Towels that are laundered frequently
- Antibacterial wipes and sprays available to members
- Routine cleaning by staff focusing on disinfection
Now take matters into your own hands. Here’s what you should do:
Use a water bottle, not a fountain: Fill your water bottle at a stand-up water cooler rather than a fountain that people put their mouth on for a drink. Filling a bottle at a fountain is the same as putting your mouth on it, since the germs can transfer from the faucet into your bottle. Yuck. “Germs are easy to pass, and they stick around,” says Kimberly Schelling, MD, a primary care physician at Tufts Medical Center. It’s also important to wash your water bottle frequently. Shelling recommends giving it a bath after every trip to the gym. Opt for bottles made from stainless steel rather than their plastic cousins, since plastic has been shown to harbor germs more easily, she says.
Wash your hands: Frequent hand washing during your workout is the easiest way to stay healthy. At minimum, you should thoroughly wash your hands once you’re done exercising. Schelling recommends warm, soapy water with 30 seconds of scrubbing.
Use a towel: Make sure that when you use your towel, you’re smart about it. If you use it as a barrier between yourself and a machine or between yourself and the mat, don’t wipe your face with it. That’s like rubbing your face all over that mat — and the germs — you were trying to avoid. If your gym doesn’t provide towels, bring one from home.
Disinfect as you go: “Anything people touch” is a place where germs can stick, says Schelling. That means mats, machines, doorknobs, free weights and more are all susceptible. The entire gym is basically one big germ-covered structure. The best rule to follow is wipe down surfaces before and after you touch anything.
Wash your clothes: You may be tempted to get a second wear out of your gym clothes, especially if you didn’t sweat much. They seem clean, right? No. Think about every piece of equipment you sat on or came in contact with while wearing those yoga pants. Gross. Just wash them.
Wear flip-flops in the shower: For those of you who went to camp (or lived on campus freshman year of college), this is a no brainer. That half inch of rubber is what stands between you and foot fungus. They won’t do you any good if you never wash them though. Schelling suggests washing your flip flops once a month in a very dilute bleach solution (about one tablespoon of bleach to one quart of water). This will kill anything that’s lingering there.
Don’t touch your face: So you’re doing everything you can: wiping down cardio equipment, using a towel and drinking from a personal water bottle. Then you use some free weights and rub your eyes. Touching your eyes, nose and mouth is the quickest way to transfer those germs. Make a conscious effort not to do it while working out.
Avoid the coughing cyclist: Or sneezing sit-up enthusiast. We know the type: he’s doing his workout next to you, acting like germs don’t exist. So what do you do? Give him some space. “If they’re coughing and exercising simultaneously, they’re never going to be able to effectively cover their mouth,” Schelling says. The best thing you can do is simply move.
But what happens if you’re the one who’s sick? Should you power through and stick to your workout routine or take a break and curl up in bed? “Don’t bring your germs out to the public if you don’t have to,” advises Schelling. Stay home and keep your germs to yourself.