In an ironic twist, hitting the gym to get some exercise could have unintended consequences: infection and illness. "You can pick up anything in the gym — it's a breeding ground for bacterial infections and viruses," says Ramsey Shehab, M.D., a sports medicine physician at Henry Ford Health.
But don't let the fear of getting sick keep you away from the gym. Instead, arm yourself with information about what the risks are and how you can keep nasty bugs at bay.
Infections That Linger at the Gym
When you work out at a gym, you're warm and sweaty. The air is moist and you're in close proximity to a lot of people who may not be at their healthiest. That's a recipe for illness and infections. The top two offenders:
If you sit around in sweaty gym clothes long after your workout, you're more likely develop fungal infections, such as jock itch and yeast infections. Love the sauna? Bare feet on hot, wet flooring is a sure way to develop athlete's foot, a fungal infection that affects the skin of the foot. "Fungal infections like warm, sweaty environments, and that's what a gym is," Dr. Shehab says.
Viruses spread when infected cough or sneeze droplets move through the air, or when you touch contaminated surfaces and then touch your mouth or nose. "If someone coughs, sneezes or sweats on shared equipment, you'll be exposed to their illnesses and germs," Dr. Shehab says.
Infection Prevention Basics
It might be tempting to use the fear of getting ill as an excuse to avoid the gym. But the reality is, you can contract an infection almost anywhere. Following these five hygiene tips can help you sidestep some of the most common gym-linked infections, including cold/flu, jock itch, yeast infections and athlete's foot.
- Use hand sanitizers: Nearly every gym has hand sanitizers mounted to the wall in several locations. "The best thing you can do to protect yourself from getting sick is to use those hand sanitizers before, during and after your workout — and keep your hands away from your face," Dr. Shehab says.
- Shower after exercise: If you sweat during your workout, you don't want to carry that sweat with you everywhere you go. Take a shower as soon as possible. If you shower at the gym, make sure to wear your own sandals or flip-flops.
- Wash your clothes: Sweaty gym clothes can harbor germs and bacteria. Launder them immediately post-workout with hot water to kill any bacteria that may be lingering.
- Get dry: Resist the urge to sit around in moist gym clothes. Drying your body, especially your genital area, is the key to avoiding common gym-related infections, including jock itch and yeast infections.
- Use disinfectant wipes: Gym equipment is one of the biggest vehicles for spreading germs. Before you use equipment, and after you're done, pass a disinfectant wipe over the areas that you frequently touch or sit on. You should even wipe down your own personal yoga mat after each use.
Steer clear of the gym when you're sick so you don't become a source of illness for other gym-goers. Not sure when it's safe to return? There are no hard-and-fast rules, but it's best to wait until your energy level is back to normal and you're no longer coughing, sneezing and feeling crummy.
To find a doctor, physical therapist or athletic trainer at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).
Dr. Ramsey Shehab is the deputy chief of Sports Medicine at Henry Ford Health. He sees patients at the Henry Ford Center for Athletic Medicine and Henry Ford Medical Center - Bloomfield Township.