Working out at the gym, especially during the cold winter months, is a great way to stay active and progress toward the 150 minutes of exercise each week recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And it’s also helpful in sticking to your New Year’s resolution if you’ve vowed to become more active or lose a little weight.
But the rubber mat that you stretch on and provides a little bit of padding can also harbor fungus. The shower floor can give you athlete’s foot and the weights and machines could give you a cold, the flu or worse.
News flash: The gym is full of germs.
“Because so many people touch the equipment, working out at the gym can put you at risk for some fungal, viral and bacterial skin infections if you’re not careful about hygiene,” said Geisinger infectious diseases specialist Amit M. Sharma, MD, MPH.
Rule number one? Wash your hands frequently, including before you begin working out and immediately after you finish.
“Wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds before and after your workout, and use the antibacterial hand sanitizer at your gym several times during your workout to minimize the germs you come into contact with,” said Dr. Sharma. “You can ensure you wash your hands for the full 20 seconds by singing ‘Happy Birthday’ or the ‘ABC’ song from beginning to end twice.”
When using the equipment in the gym, it’s best to spray down the machine with disinfecting cleaner whether you’re certain the person before you did it or not. Then, do the next person a favor by cleaning it after use, too.
During your workout, you’re likely to work up a good sweat. It can be tempting to wipe your face with your hands, but try to resist this to keep germs away. If you need to wipe away sweat, use your own clean towel. And if you need to move hair out of your face, use the back of your hand.
After you’re done running on the treadmill or climbing the stair stepper, the mat you may stretch on is also home to plenty of germs, including ringworm.
“Ringworm is a common skin infection caused by fungus that can live on yoga or other workout mats and get easily passed from person to person,” said Dr. Sharma. “It’s typically not serious and can sometimes be treated with an over-the-counter anti-fungal cream.”
However, if symptoms last more than two to four weeks, you should see your doctor.
After you’re done working out, remove wet clothing and shower to prevent your sweaty clothes from becoming a breeding ground for bacteria. If you choose to shower at the gym, wear flip flops or water shoes to avoid fungus or bacteria that live in the shower stalls or on the floor of a locker room.
When you’re done showering, be sure to dry off completely — including your toes and feet — to avoid athlete’s foot.
Finally, if you’re checking out a new gym to help you meet your exercise goals, take notice of how clean it is.
“Don’t be afraid to ask how often the equipment is cleaned and what they use to clean everything,” said Dr. Sharma. “When you take a tour, do you see staff cleaning the equipment or locker rooms? If you don’t, you may want to look for another gym."