Dumbbells. Bike seats. Yoga mats. Hot tubs. Sweaty bodies. Shower floors. You go to the gym to get fit, not to get sick. But you could be exposing yourself to infection while you exercise—if you're not careful.
Upper respiratory tract infections are the likeliest threat, says Amesh Adalja, a board-certified physician specializing in infectious diseases and clinical assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. This risk for a cold or flu at gyms is similar to what you'd face in other public settings, says Adalja, but going to the gym can boost your odds of contracting MRSA (short for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus)—particularly if you participate in contact sports or share equipment. And while "staph" usually doesn't cause health problems—about 1 in 3 people carries it harmlessly—MRSA is scary, since it's immune to certain antibiotics, Adalja says.
Now, this isn't an excuse to cancel your gym membership: The benefits of exercise "clearly outweigh" the risks for infections, says Adalja. Just follow these tips to safeguard your health.
Wash your hands—often. Common sense and good hygiene are especially important when dealing with bodily fluids like sweat, says Aaron Glatt, spokesperson for the Infectious Diseases Society of America and chief administrative officer at Mercy Medical Center in Rockville Centre, N.Y. After exercise, wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with warm water and soap, particularly before touching your face or eating (yes, even that wrapper-protected energy bar).
Use your own supplies. Bring your own equipment whenever possible, including yoga mats, boxing gloves, and boxing wraps. Never share towels or razors. (If you must use gym-owned boxing gloves that can't accommodate boxing wraps, consider wearing latex gloves underneath, advises Neal Pire, spokesperson for the American College of Sports Medicine and owner of Inspire Training Systems.) Though the risk of acquiring MRSA from exercise equipment is low, according to a small 2011 study in the American Journal of Infection Control, shared supplies like yoga mats can be "a haven for dirt, sweat, and grime," says Pire.
Wrap those wounds. If you have any type of wound, whether it's actively bleeding or in the process of healing, cover it with a secure bandage. Most skin infections "are picked up through breaks in people's skin," Adalja explains. (Avoid whirlpools or swimming pools until you've healed, advises the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.) If your wounds aren't healing properly—healthy people should see improvement in two or three days, Adalja says—or if you have a fever or abnormal pain, consult a healthcare provider. You may have an infection that needs medical attention.
Check out your sports partners. No, not like that. Just look around to see if anyone has signs of an active infection—like a nasty blister or rash—and avoid body contact, since skin infections can be transmitted through contact sports like basketball and racquetball, says Adalja. "The more contact, the more potential for infection," adds Glatt. And if you have an active infection (even if it's just a cold), think about staying home until you've recovered, Adalja says. It's common courtesy.
Wipe machines—twice. Wipe down equipment before and after you use it. And don't just swipe with a plain towel, although that's better than nothing, Adalja says. Instead, use an antibacterial wipe or spray. Some gyms even provide complimentary cleaning agents, so no excuses.
Take showers. If you're getting into a pool or hot tub, shower first to prevent introducing bacteria. Then shower when you leave to prevent picking up "hot tub rash," a skin infection caused by the bacterium Pseudomonas aeruginosa. (By the way, though it's very unlikely that you'd pick up a sexually transmitted infection from just sitting in a hot tub, says Glatt, if you're getting frisky with a fellow gym-goer, you are at risk.) And of course, take your typical shower after working out to help prevent fungal infections like Athlete's foot and jock itch, which can develop if you hang out in sweaty or wet clothes.
Wear shower shoes in wet areas. These popular accessories not only prevent falls, they can also protect against fungal infections, like ringworm. (Damp surfaces, such as locker room floors, are an ideal breeding ground for microbes.) So next time you're tempted to go barefoot, put the brakes on that plan. You may not get an infection by wandering around once or twice, says Adalja. But the more you test your luck, the greater your risk. So why take the chance?
[See: 9 Footwear Do's and Don'ts]