Workout Tips

Attack of the Gym Germs

What’s lurking on that bench? And in that gym bag? Are your gloves the real enemy?

by
man sneezing

Tis the season to be weary…

Of all that surrounds us when the temperatures drop and the cold and flu rates go up. And yeah, there may have been a minor freak out this fall regarding a certain virus that did not result in a nation-wide epidemic – but rest assured; there are several other bacteria, fungi, and infections that, while not as severe as the big E, are way more common to encounter and way more likely to contract.

And while we all bundle up to protect ourselves from the health risks of winter, there is one haven where all bodily fluid bets are off – the gym.

Working out when the weather gets cold is one of the great “chicken or the egg” dilemmas of our time. Do we avoid the bitter cold commutes and potential cold/flu hotbeds that are our gyms in an attempt to stay healthy? Or do we push through and maintain our workout routine to preserve optimal health and the ability to stave off sickness?

The answer (duh) is the latter. Not that we need to remind our devoted readers that your workout stops for no one (or no germ), but what do the experts have to say? According to Joe Rubino, Lysol’s resident expert on germ transmission and cold and flu prevention, the answer is easy. “The more physically fit we are, the more likely we are able to fend off any infection,” says Rubino, a licensed microbiologist, aka, germologist. “I wouldn’t recommend that, during the winter, you change anything that works for you as far as your workout.”

Since avoiding the gym is out of the question, what should you be aware of during cold and flu season to ensure an infection-free workout? What are the do’s and don’ts? We’ve enlisted Rubino to guide us through the landmines and cover everything from the equipment you use to the gear you wear.

What Lies Beneath the Surface

As far as what you can catch at the gym; other than influenza, there is a gaggle of bacteria most commonly consisting of, but not limited to, staphylococcus (staph infection), streptococcus (strep throat), and E. coli (best known as, E. coli). According to Rubino, bacteria are most easily contracted from flat surfaces such as benches and gym mats. And a lot of the time, say with the flu, people are spreading germs when they least expect it.

“If you are infected with the flu, it takes about a day or two until you exhibit the symptoms,” says Rubino. “But during that time period, when you’re infected but not symptomatic, you’re spreading the virus to other people by depositing it on surfaces. It would not be surprising in a bad flu season that the virus shows up on several objects; the weights and the machines being used at the gym.”

The tip is to wash your hands frequently or use hand sanitizer, according to Rubino, in order to eliminate bacteria and viruses on your hands before you go on with your day. It’s not always that easy, of course. “Let’s face it, when you’re working out at the gym, you don’t want to be running to the bathroom every time you finish using a machine; you want to get your workout done,” says Rubino. “So just being aware that your hands touched something that might have previously picked up some germs is important. Keep your hands away from your face. If you’re drinking from a bottle, make sure your hands are away from the area you put your mouth on. It sounds simple, but you always have to be conscious about this stuff.”

antibacterial soap

Antibacterial Soap: Friend or Foe?

When it comes to washing your hands, is volume really the key? Some would have you think otherwise when dealing with antibacterial soaps, due to the ongoing debate that these soaps kill vital antibodies, leading to the development of “super bacteria” and putting a real hurt on your immune system. (Sounds like another “chicken or the egg” debate!) So can washing our hands too much make it easier to get sick?

According to Rubino, the short answer is no. “Some of the studies I’ve been involved in that really look at what’s going on in the world, not a laboratory manipulation of the bacteria, but in the real world; I haven’t see any resistance occur,” says Rubino. “So no, I don’t worry about the concern over bacterial resistance from using antibacterial hand wash. And with most gyms, whatever soap they have is what you’ll be using. Whether it’s antibacterial or not, you should feel free to wash your hands and not worry about what soap they have.”

So there you have it – myth debunked!

The Legend of the Smelly Gym Bag

Keeping your skin clean should always be a priority at the gym, and the winter months do provide an opportunity to cover up a little more; which is great if you want to avoid a staph or other skin infection. And for many of you, all of that dirty gym clothes are going straight into your gym bag. By isolating the dirty clothes in said bag, you may be protecting your body – your nostrils, not so much.

A popular trend recently is antimicrobial technology being used in gym bags. According to Rubino, the bags are infused with an antimicrobial agent that prevents or stunts the growth of bacteria, primarily to reduce odor that might be produced from the bacteria, or from moisture caused by sweat or water. So while you can never fully sanitize your gym bag, you can keep it from smelling like grim death.

If you can’t afford or choose not to purchase an antimicrobial bag, Rubino suggests spraying your bag with a Lysol disinfectant spray. “It can kill a broad range of bacteria, and other germs that can get you sick, while also de-odorizing the bag,” says Rubino.

gym gloves

What About Gym Gloves?

An item that doesn’t seem to get enough attention when discussing gym germs are the two things that touch almost every part of the gym with reckless abandon – your weight lifting gloves. Every serious gym rat has gone through their fair share of rusty smelling workout gloves; but unlike your clothes, gloves are often neglected from a hygiene standpoint.

According to Rubino, while gloves should be washed regularly, they’re not quite the breeding ground when compared to, say, flat gym surfaces. That’s because the fabrics in most gloves are less likely to transfer bacteria and other germs to your skin. Rubino noted that while it is less likely, the threat is not eliminated and gloves should still be laundered on a consistent basis. “It probably isn’t possible to wash them every day, but in the long run, it might not hurt to have a few different pairs to interchange,” says Rubino.

Other Do’s and Don’ts

In the end, an overly cautious approach is never a bad thing during this time of the year. “With any machine, free weight, or exercise ball you touch, it’s best to just assume the person before you had a poor level of hygiene, didn’t wash their hands properly, or may have been sick with some virus or infection,” says Rubino. “And there is nothing inherently wrong with touching something that is contaminated, as long as you are aware and keep your hands away from your mouth, your eyes, your nose; anywhere bacteria or viruses can find an entry to the body.”

As for some rapid fire tips: Drinking fountains are fine! “As long as you don’t put your mouth on the fountain itself, I don’t see a problem with that,” says Rubino. Using two different towels – one to clean and dry off your body, the other to clean and dry off machines – is highly recommended. And when it comes to protecting yourself at the gym, outside of the gym, a flu shot wouldn’t hurt. “If you’re going to be in the gym, and exposed to a lot of different people, getting vaccinated is obviously important.”

Also, be wary of the bigger risks out there, such as MRSA and other antibiotic resistant bacteria. “We are seeing more and more antibiotic resistant bacteria showing up in communities,” says Rubino. “It makes it even more important to have preventative practices so you don’t contract any of these bacteria, which are very difficult to treat.”

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