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Working out a plan to avoid germs at the gym

By Deborah Kotz
Globe Staff / October 10, 2011

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With all the wet weather we’ve been having, many outdoor fitness buffs may be heading back to their gyms for exercise - just in time for cold and flu season. Viruses and bacteria can lurk for hours on the handles of crosstrainers and weight machines. “You can pick up an infection at the gym, just like you can get infected on the T,’’ said Bill Hanage, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Norovirus - which Hanage calls “winter vomiting disease’’ - can also make its rounds at fitness facilities during winter months. Gyms host a variety of other germs that are easy to contract when your bare skin touches germy surfaces or an infected person whom you’re sparring with in judo.

“Germs found in gyms include funguses, wart viruses, and staph,’’ said Hanage. It’s even possible to get infected with a staph strain called Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) that is resistant to some antibiotics.

But Hanage also emphasized that serious infections from the gym are rare and no reason to avoid getting sweaty in a public place. “You shouldn’t be looking at everything and imagining bugs in hiding,’’ he said. No question, we get more health benefits from exercising at the gym than health risks from infections.

The smart approach? Hanage recommends ditching the germ phobia - “stress is its own disease,’’ he said - and taking the following precautions to minimize the risk of infections.

Carry a small bottle of hand sanitizer with your towel. Rub some on after using the elliptical or weight machines to get rid of any germs you pick up from these machines. If you’re not a fan of hand sanitizer, make an effort not to touch your eyes, nose, and mouth while working out until you wash your hands. Or better yet, wipe down the machines with a cleaning spray or sanitizer wipe before you use it.

Don’t use the same towel to wipe your face after wiping machines. Sounds obvious, except I do it all the time when I wipe down weight machines and then wipe off my face that’s still sweaty from my aerobic workout. “You’re just transferring germs from the machine to your mouth and nose where they can enter your body,’’ Hanage tells me. I should bring two hand towels next time or use a paper towel for my face.

Cover all your cuts with adhesive bandages. That will cut off an entry route into the body for germs like MRSA. Hanage also pointed out that MRSA that circulates in community settings like gyms tends to be less of a concern than tougher-to-treat strains that live in hospitals. “MRSA picked up in the gym usually causes ugly spots or boils on the skin that clear up pretty quickly when treated,’’ he said.

Don’t share soap, deodorant, or razors. Germs live on all these things, so bring your own grooming items to the gym.

Take your towel to the steam room. Many bacteria thrive in hot humid environments, so put your towel down before sitting or lying bare-skinned in the steam room.

Avoid going barefoot in the locker room. Wear flip-flops to the shower to avoid picking up a wart virus. But do go barefoot when you hit the shower so you don’t forget to wash your feet and in between your toes.

Slip quickly out of sweaty gym clothes. Warm moist clothes allow bacteria and viruses to multiply, which increases your chances of getting infected with whatever you picked up from gym machines or mats. It’s best to shower and change clothes immediately after your workouts.

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