6 Ways to Avoid Infections at the Gym

Athletes who share equipment can be exposed to staph and other bugs, but you can protect yourself.

Open locker and a bench in a changing room

As much as I'd enjoy the view in an NFL locker room, after reading the latest news on Staphylococcus infections in football players, I will pass up any forthcoming invitations. As this ESPN.com story nicely summarizes, the Cleveland Browns's Kellen Winslow is only the latest player to develop an infection from staph, which usually sits harmlessly on our skin but can turn dangerous when it gets into our bodies via a cut or scrape. Other high school, college, and pro athletes in sports including wrestling and baseball have also come down with staph infections in recent years, in some cases MRSA, the potentially deadly strain that is immune to antibiotics. It's not always clear where these and other infections originate, but athletes are at risk because they tend to get nicks and cuts, to have skin-to-skin contact with teammates and opponents, and to share equipment and towels.

That doesn't give you another excuse to hit the snooze button rather than working out, however. Doctors say the benefits of exercise far outweigh the small chance of acquiring staph or another infection at the gym or in the course of your fitness routine. And, they say, you can take some common-sense steps to protect yourself:

  • Make sure the equipment is clean. Most exercisers won't have a lot of intimate contact with other gym-goers. But they will use the same exercise balls, spinning bikes, and weight machines. Gyms are supposed to regularly clean off the equipment, but you should take your own precautions. "Emphasize hygiene as much as you can," says Richard Wenzel, chair of the department of internal medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University and expert on antibiotic-resistant infections. Wiping a machine off with a hand towel is not sufficient. Many gyms have their own disposable wipe dispensers. If yours doesn't, you can buy your own wipes; anything with at least 60 percent alcohol is ideal.
    • In this case, sharing is not always best. Don't use someone else's towel. In some cases, you may also get more peace of mind by purchasing your own basic equipment, like yoga mats, which, when not regularly cleaned, have been anecdotally linked to bacterial, fungal, and viral infections.
      • Shower right after you exercise. Don't wait around in your sweaty clothes if you've been using common equipment or participating in a contact sport, advises Neil Fishman, director of Health Care Epidemiology and Infection Control at the University of Pennsylvania Health Care System. (It's OK to answer your E-mails before showering if you've been out for a run or something else that doesn't involved shared equipment or contact.) Don't use a communal bar of soap; either bring your own or use the gym's liquid soap.
        • While you're in there, wear flip-flops or shower shoes. While staph gets the headlines, the fungal infection known as athlete's foot is still a pain. Protect yourself by keeping your feet off the communal shower floor and carefully drying off your tootsies afterwards. Oh, and in case you were wondering (I actually wasn't when I stumbled upon this discussion), peeing on your foot in the shower does not fend off athlete's foot or other germs.
          • Think twice about the sauna or the whirlpool if you have a cut, scrape, or bad bruise. Chlorine in regular pools will kill many bugs (with the exception of a few, like Cryptosporidium, that can be ingested by gulping water). But a couple of microbes thrive in hot water, says Fishman. A form of folliculitis caused by a bacterium called Pseudomonas aeruginosa can also give you a rash that the CDC calls "hot tub rash" and is more colorfully known as "hot tub buns." To help prevent it, shower after you use the hot tub.
            • Don't ignore symptoms. Whether or not you've worked out lately, pay attention to a scratch, bruise, or cut that becomes red, hot, or tender, says Fishman. The greatest risk, he adds, comes not from a particular machine at the gym, but the tendency to ignore an infection until it's progressed to something serious.