When you go to the gym, do you wash your hands before and after using the equipment? Bring your own regularly cleaned mat for floor exercises? Shower with antibacterial soap and put on clean clothes immediately after your workout? Use only your own towels, razors, bar soap, water bottles? If you answered “no” to any of the above, you could wind up with one of the many skin infections that can spread like wildfire in athletic settings. In June, the National Athletic Trainers’ Association, known as N.A.T.A., published a paper about skin diseases in athletes that could just as well apply to anyone who works out in a communal setting, be it a school, commercial gym or Y. The authors pointed out that “skin infections in athletes are extremely common,” and easily spread via the normal athlete locales such as gyms, where people sweat, bathe, and share equipment—a bacterial breeding ground! While we aren’t hypochondriacs, the risks associated with communal exercise equipment are high, but also preventable if you’re conscientious of cleanliness while at the gym.
Risks & Prevention
Recreational athletes as well as participants in organized sports are prone to fungal, viral and bacterial skin infections. Sweat, abrasion and direct or indirect contact with the lesions and secretions of others combine to make every athlete’s skin vulnerable to a host of problems. While MRSA may be the most serious skin infection, athlete’s foot, jock itch, boils, impetigo, herpes simplex and ringworm, among others, are not exactly fun or attractive. If contracted, the skin disease should be treated immediately, and you should stay away from public fitness facilities until cleared by a doctor who is well versed in skin diseases. “It’s what we all learned — or should have learned — in sixth-grade health class,” he said. “It’s all common sense. You need to keep yourself and your equipment clean. You never know who last used the equipment in a gym. It can be a great breeding ground for these bugs, some of which are pretty nasty.” In fact, he added, it’s best to have two bags for post-workout, one only for clean clothes, and to wash the dirty-clothes bag now and then.
The report noted that there had been “an alarming increase in the prevalence of MRSA” in the noses of both healthy children and adults. Thus, sneezing into one’s hand or blowing one’s nose without washing with an antibacterial cleanser afterward may spread these dangerous bacteria to others. While hand hygiene is most important over all, avoiding fungal infections requires a daily change of athletic socks and using foot powder. Shower shoes can help prevent infection as long as they don’t keep you from soaping your feet. If you plan to work out in a gym or use a locker room, Mr. Foley suggested that before choosing a facility, you quiz the management about the cleaning agents used (they should be approved by the Environmental Protection Agency) and daily cleaning schedule for all surfaces and equipment. If exercise mats are not cleaned between classes, he suggested bringing your own. Antibacterial wipes or spray bottles should be provided and used by everyone to clean equipment after a workout.
By making small adjustments, you can enjoy your workout and ensure that sickness won’t damper your new commitment to the gym.
Adapted from the NYTimes.com article by Jane Brody, published August 2, 2010
–Abby Gould, Sage Wellness Intern