Here's how to avoid germs in the gym

Shared equipment and facilities can spread microbes in the gym. We ask the experts how to avoid illness

Dubai UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - Members of the fitness centre using the facilities of the gym in Dubai at Palm Strip Mall.  Ruel Pableo for The National
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The flu seems to be going around, its spread probably helped by returning travellers, including schoolchildren and co-workers. But planes, public toilets and workplaces aside, an often-overlooked hotbed of germs is the gym – home to sweaty exercise mats and rusty dumbbells as well as communal showers and water dispensers – and experts warn that gym-goers must take extra care to prevent the spread of infections this season.

It's in the air

Dr Maged Magdy Sahioun, a general practitioner at Emirates Hospital in Motor City, Dubai, says there are three major risk factors in gyms: towels, equipment and airborne pathogens. With many gyms being enclosed and soundproof, the air flow is of substandard quality, with higher levels of carbon dioxide. It's why some people can't stop yawning and / or feeling sleepy, while others cause or catch airborne infections, which can range from the common cold and flu to tuberculosis.

"Try going to well-ventilated gyms or gyms that are bigger in size," says Dr Sahioun, who also recommends avoiding close contact with other members while exercising. He says you should skip the gym if you're feeling even slightly under the weather, "as the body is more prone to picking up an infection when the immune system is weakened".

Clean equipment is key

Wipe down weights and machines before and after use

Devon Graham is the fitness operations manager at Layaqa gym at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi and the man in charge of hygiene. One of the most common gym-related infections he has seen is dermatitis, caused by equipment that has not been cleaned properly. "To avoid this, it is vital that gyms follow stringent cleaning and hygiene standards that prevent the development and spread of bacteria," he says.

Weights, equipment, handles and other surfaces must be cleaned daily, while mats used in group classes should be sanitised after each use. Wet spaces require a lot more work, he says. Showers and changing rooms should be wiped down and sanitised several times a day.

While Graham places the onus on gym management, he says it is also important to educate and encourage members to understand the importance of cleanliness and taking responsibility to help minimise the spread of infection. "By providing sanitising wipes at strategic places around the gym and providing towels, gyms can encourage members to wipe down equipment after use and to place a towel on equipment to absorb sweat." Another thing to remember is that despite regular washing, shared towels are major carriers of germs, so Dr Sahioun recommends always keeping your own at hand as well as avoiding sharing other personal items such as water bottles and shoes.  

Many of us wipe down weights, machines and benches after use, but it's also important to do so before you start your exercise. "Gym equipment contains micro-­organisms, particularly fungi that grow and become contagious, hence it is recommended to clean all surfaces before using them," says Dr Sahioun. "Always use hand sanitisers and thoroughly wash your hands before and after using any equipment." 

Hygiene matters

Graham says that the next time you take a shower in the gym, pop on a pair of flip-flops, as verrucas (also known as plantar warts) are easily spread

Dr Lyssette Cardona, a board-certified infectious diseases consultant at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi, says there can be some fairly serious consequences when gyms don't take care of hygiene. MRSA, which used to be limited to hospitals, is now a common infection that can be found in places such as the gym. "Most people have not heard of a staph infection, but it is one of the most common health risks in the gym," she says. Tough to treat, symptoms include sores on the skin, fever and chills. "The infection can easily be contracted from surfaces on which there are bacteria, and if there is an open cut or a break in the skin, the risk of infection is high."

Most people have not heard of a staph infection, but it is one of the most common health risks in the gym. The infection can easily be contracted from surfaces on which there are bacteria, and if there is an open cut or a break in the skin, the risk of infection is high.

She says gym-goers would do well to remember that respiratory viruses are easily spread by coughing and sneezing. "It is strongly advised that people follow respiratory etiquette: cover the nose and mouth with a tissue when coughing or sneezing, and wash hands frequently or use hand hygiene products often, especially after using equipment," she says. "The flu vaccine is also ­strongly recommended to avoid catching the virus."

Despite potential risks, staying active is vital for physical and mental well-being. Dr Sahioun closes the matter on a positive note. "A gym can be home to infectious diseases that can be transferred from one person to another, but," he says, "to keep things in perspective, if proper hygienic protocols are followed, there is nothing to fear."