Gyms are filthy garbage cans. But they’re garbage cans that facilitate physical fitness. Learn how to use one without becoming patient zero.
Between the aroma of human funk in the locker room and seeing people’s sweat prints all over mats and machines, it’s reasonable to assume that gyms are pretty hectic germ-wise.
But if we follow a few easy, expert-approved tips, even the most germaphobic among us can enjoy fitness.
BuzzFeed Life asked Kelly Reynolds, Ph.D., director of the Environment, Exposure Science and Risk Assessment Center at the University of Arizona’s College of Public Health to explain germs, how they live, work, and spread, and what measures gym-goers can take to minimize our exposure to these infection- and sickness-causing microorganisms. Here’s what she said.
1. Understand which germs are where.
“Moist environments are more efficient at spreading germs,” Reynolds says. Between sweaty equipment and mats, wet sinks and showers, and humid saunas, gyms are basically life-giving spas for germs.
The two germs to be aware of in the gym environment are Trichophyton, the fungus that causes Athlete’s Foot, and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a type of Staph bacteria that causes skin infections that can become life threatening if it enters the blood. Both spread when your skin touches a contaminated surface or object (say a mat, seat, or free weights). Broken or torn skin — including skin with microabrasions caused by shaving — is especially vulnerable to MRSA.
Unlike our home bathrooms, which typically get heavy use in the morning and then have the whole day to dry out, gym locker rooms are highly trafficked throughout the day, which means that they’re pretty much always damp — a germ’s favorite place to be. To deal with this properly, gym locker rooms and bathrooms should be cleaned and disinfected multiple times per day. Reynolds recommends asking a manager to explain the gym’s cleaning and disinfecting protocol.
3. Wipe down surfaces with disinfectant wet wipes.
Reynolds says that gyms are among the environments most “contaminated with bodily fluids.” Um, ew. Wipe down the surface of anything you’re about to use (and if you want to be courteous about it, whatever you’ve just used) and enjoy your reduced-germ workout.
4. Clean, cover, and protect any open skin.
From paper cuts to hang nails, open skin should be covered when you’re in the gym. Broken skin makes you more vulnerable to germs like MRSA. After your workout, remove the bandage and wash the area.
5. Wash your hands.
When people in a work environment wash their hands regularly, it can reduce the spread of viruses by almost 80%, according to a study Reynolds and her colleagues recently conducted. 80 percent, people! Proper hand-washing means scrubbing with soap for about 20 seconds, rinsing, and drying completely, either by air-drying or with a clean towel, single-use towel. Jim Arbogast, Ph.D., Vice President at GOJO Industries, the inventors of Purell, recommends keeping an alcohol-based sanitizer in your gym bag.
By the way, it’s important to de-germify your hands before that post-workout snack goes anywhere near your mouth. And wash your hands before you touch your eyes and nose, also; those are mucus membranes, which readily absorb substances, including potentially harmful ones.
6. Wash your body properly, too.
Look, germs happen. And although there’s no official protocol for showering, Reynolds says it’s “reasonable and plausible” to assume that the same kind of stuff we do for clean hands — lather up, scrub, rinse, dry with a clean towel — makes for proper showering, and that you really ought to shower as soon as you reasonably can after each workout.
7. And wash your gym clothes often.
Resist the urge to get an extra wear or two out of your gym clothes — you really should wash them after just a single use. Wash with an enzyme-containing detergent, and dry on high heat (the scalding dryer is where most germs are killed). If you’ve got sensitive skin and a closet full of air dry-only workout clothes, not to worry. Choose a fragrance- and dye-free detergent made specifically for dealing with extra-sweaty and (therefore extra-germy) workout clothes.
8. You know what, fuck it, if it comes into contact with the gym, wash it.
Think of your gym bag as a germ tote. It rests on the gym floor, hangs out in lockers, holds your sweaty gear, etc. (You know what sat on the locker room bench before your duffel bag, right?) Like your hands, body, and clothes, it, too needs to be washed and dried regularly. The drill: hot water, good detergent, thorough drying.
9. BYO towel.
Reynolds said that even “clean” gym towels (the ones provided by the gym to members) have been shown to transmit the hardier germs like fungus. If you’re bringing your own towel, you know that it’s been laundered properly and frequently.
10. Wear flip-flops in the locker room (and other footwear everywhere else).
Athlete’s Foot, the itchy and sometimes stinging and burning rash-like fungal infection that shows up on the feet and between the toes, is common in people who work out. This is because Trichophyton, the fungus that causes Athlete’s Foot, grows on sweaty feet that are wearing damp socks and jammed into sneakers. It can spreads via floors, linens, mats, towels, etc. In conclusion, don’t go barefoot in the gym. If you’re taking yoga, Pilates, and so on, wear socks or yoga shoes. And for godssake wear flip-flops in the shower and around the locker room.
11. Your water bottle is gross; wash it now.
If you carry a reusable bottle around the gym, consider it a germ thermos (germos?) by the end of your workout. Wash it after every single time you bring it to the gym. And if you can get your hands on a bottle that doesn’t need to be unscrewed or opened before sipping, you’ll minimize germ transfer. Reynolds recommends washing your bottle in warm water, scrubbing well to loosen dirt or particles (which house germs) and drying it thoroughly. Use a dishwasher instead if you have access to one — it’ll use super hot water and dry the bottle after cleaning, minimizing that moisture that germs love.