Preventing germs in the gym
Inside the Locker Room
One of the most common diseases lurking in gyms is tinea pedis or athlete’s foot (i.e., a fungal skin infection). Its symptoms include cracked, blistered skin along with an itching or burning sensation. Onychomycosis is another infectious fungal disease hiding on shower and locker room floors. Its symptoms include yellow, brittle toe- and fingernails. Both of these diseases can be treated with over-the-counter medications, but for persistent infections you may need to consult a dermatologist.
The human papillomavirus (i.e., the virus that causes plantar warts) is another disease-causing organism commonly found in health clubs. These warts appear alone or in clusters on the bottom of the feet. Even in a seemingly immaculate gym, these organisms can dwell in unexpected places. “The most common place people pick up warts and athlete’s foot is in the locker room. It doesn’t matter if it has a carpeted or tile floor. The second place is in shower stalls. Another place most people don’t suspect is alongside indoor pools, but a lot of foot fungus is found there,” Adams says.
Being careful while changing or showering can easily prevent most of these diseases. “When I go to the gym, not for one minute does my foot hit the ground barefoot,” says Adams. “Always keep a barrier between you and the floor. Even a brisk walk between the locker and shower stall can allow foot fungus to take hold.”
The following are other ways to avoid fungi and viruses from invading your feet.
- Wear flip-flops in the shower.
- Wash and dry your feet thoroughly.
- Use antifungal powder in your shoes.
- Wear synthetic socks.
- Change your socks often, since sweaty socks are a prime breeding ground for fungi.
- Change out of your gym shoes after exercising and wash them occasionally in the hot water cycle.
Since fungal infections can spread, don’t dry sensitive areas, such as your underarms, with a towel used on your feet or dropped on the locker room floor. “Be especially careful if you have breaks in the skin,” Adams suggests. “Cuts are the perfect opportunity for microorganisms to make their way into the skin. Even microscopic cracks you can’t see can be an entry point.” If you cut yourself or otherwise cause a break in the skin while at the gym, clean the open wound with an iodine antibacterial solution and cover it securely before continuing your workout.
Outside the Locker Room
You also need to be vigilant about avoiding disease outside the locker room. The treadmill or weights you are about to use could have been infected by someone with a cold or worse.
According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a bacteria called methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) was recently found in recreational athletes. Although, MRSA is a version of the common staph bacteria, it is resistant to the methicillin antibiotic, which makes it especially hard to treat. While “normal” staphylococcus aureus is a microbial skin infection easily treated with antibiotics, MRSA is more difficult to treat and can infect the blood and bones–a potentially life threatening complication. MRSA’s antibiotic resistance also makes it more likely to spread, since the normal course of treatment does not eliminate it and the infected person remains a carrier. The CDC cites close physical contact and equipment sharing as reasons for outbreaks. Researchers have also found E. coli, strep-bacteria and the influenza virus in gyms and on athletic equipment.
The easiest way to protect yourself is by wiping equipment before use. Gyms usually provide disinfectant spray, but some people prefer to carry their own wipes. Always use a towel to cover the seat of your exercise bike and bench in the locker room. When you’re done with your workout, don’t forget to clean your water bottle in order to prevent bacterial buildup there, too.
To prevent spreading disease to others, avoid exercising at the gym when you’re sick. Although conventional wisdom says you can work out if your symptoms are above the neck, keep in mind you may expose others. Consider exercising at home when you feel under the weather and avoid having your own germs passed back when your workout partner comes to the gym sick with the cold you gave him or her.
With a little bit of care, even the worst of these diseases can be treated or avoided, allowing you to enjoy your workout without worrying about bringing anything but a healthier body home.