Going to the gym is supposed to make you healthier. But sometimes it’s hard not to wonder whether that crowded, sweaty environment may also leave you more vulnerable to colds and viruses.
“Germs and bacteria are found everywhere, including gyms,” says Jack Foley, associate director of athletics for sports medicine at Lehigh University. “The last thing you want when exercising is to get ill from your gym.” And while the chance is there, the gym really isn’t as big of a culprit as you may think.
Foley and Steven Zinder, the director of athletic training at the University of South Florida, were two of the lead authors of a National Athletic Trainers Association position statement on skin infections in training facilities. The summary of that position: Skin infections can spread quickly among athletes or through communal gyms and equipment.
“Skin infections or outbreaks can occur in settings where there is high volume or close quarters, as in locker rooms or gym; skin-to-skin contact during activity or contact with contaminated surfaces like equipment, benches, or exercise mats; and, often, a lack of hygiene,” says Foley.
Now, before you cancel your gym membership or use that as an excuse to stay home, know that the risks are still very small — especially if you take a few simple steps to avoid picking up viruses or bacteria.
Here are some of the simple steps Zinder and Foley recommend:
1. WASH YOUR HANDS A LOT
“Wash your hands more than you think you need to,” says Zinder. “Frequent hand-washing may be our single best defense,” says Foley.
Simple soap and hot water is a good way to make sure you don’t transfer germs from one place to another.
2. SHOWER BEFORE YOU GO HOME
That soap-and-water rule for your hands also applies to your whole body. “You should always shower in the facility you work out in,” said Zinder.
When you’re done working out, it’s time to shower. It is not time to jump in your car and transfer whatever germs might be on your dirty clothes to your clean car and home. If you do that, says Zinder, you could easily pick those germs back up the next time you get in your car.
3. CARRY SEPARATE BAGS FOR YOUR DIRTY AND CLEAN STUFF
Part of protecting yourself against germ transference is keeping your dirty stuff separate from your clean stuff. Think about how most of us go to the gym in the morning, says Zinder. We wear our workout clothes and bring a bag with our clean clothes for work. After we’re done exercising, we tend to take the clean stuff out of the bag and throw our dirty stuff in. Then, the next morning we repeat it all over again — only now the dirty stuff has transferred germs onto our gym bag that our clean clothes will pick up — creating a vicious germ cycle.
Ideally, he says, you’d bring a mesh bag for your dirty gear and throw it all in the laundry (with the bag) when you get home. Don’t forget that the bottoms of your shoes can track lots of germs, which may mean putting them in a small plastic bag when you’re done.
4. BRING YOUR OWN YOGA MAT
You could bring your own version of everything, but it’s not worth it. Instead, focus on the items that don’t get cleaned by the gym regularly, like yoga mats.
You may even want to wipe down the stuff that does get cleaned — like weights or treadmills — before you use it. Hopefully, the person who used it before you wiped it down, but you can only control what you can control, says Zinder.
5. USE COMMON SENSE
Don’t share razors or personal hygiene products, says Foley. Don’t go to the gym if you have a cold. Wear flip-flops in the locker room.
“The only thing you can be responsible for is yourself,” says Zinder, “and, fortunately, you learned all the things you need to know [about hygiene] back in sixth grade.”
Ultimately, says Zinder, germs at the gym are not that big of a problem.
It’s easy to blow this out of proportion, but in fact, he says, we could all use a few more low-level germs in our lives. They can help build up a healthy immune system. And isn’t being healthier why you’re working out in the first place?
GEAR UP FOR YOUR NEXT WORKOUT