The gym isn't always the cleanest or most hygienic place in the world, especially during cold and flu season. With germs lurking in nearly every crevice of the machines, it's easy to pick up a nasty cold, stomach bug or skin infection. But don't let those menacing microbes keep you from crushing your workouts or staying healthy.
In addition to getting your flu shot — which can protect you against each year's most common strains of the virus — there are other preventive measures you can take to keep gym germs at bay. Here, Cynthia Li, MD, a board-certified internist and author of Brave New Medicine: A Doctor's Unconventional Path to Healing Her Autoimmune Illness, shares six ways to avoid getting sick during your sweat sessions.
1. Wipe Down Equipment
Ever considered how many germy fingers have touched the elliptical dashboard or the number of grubby hands that've gripped those dumbbells? That's why wiping down equipment before using it is important, says Dr. Li.
And during cold and flu season, when germs are everywhere, disinfecting surfaces is key to reducing your contact with bothersome bugs. In fact, a January 2013 study by researchers at the University of Arizona found that cleaning commonly touched surfaces can lower your risk of contracting cooties by 80 percent. And remember to practice common courtesy and wipe down equipment after you finish too!
2. Don’t Touch Your Face
Since you can't sanitize every surface at the gym, you're bound to encounter germs when you touch a dumbbell or doorknob. But you can still prevent pesky pathogens from making you sick. How? Keep your hands away from your face and mouth, says Dr. Li. This way, whatever's on your fingers can't make its way inside your body and make you sick.
Then make sure you wash your hands as soon as you can or squirt on some hand sanitizer (some gyms even have dispensers mounted on the wall). Bear in mind, though, that alcohol-based disinfectants can take up to four minutes to kill the flu virus, according to a September 2019 study published in mSphere.
3. Ditch Your Damp Clothes
Rushing to get home after the gym? Before you hit the road, make time to swap your sweaty sportswear for dry duds. Damp clothes quickly cool the body's surface, which causes the blood vessels in your nose and upper airways to clamp down, reducing blood flow to those areas, says Dr. Li.
How can this make you sick? "It reduces the immune system in the nose and throat, thereby allowing cold viruses, which might already be there and kept at bay, to then flourish," Dr. Li says.
4. Shower ASAP
If you use exercise mats, chances are you're bathing your body in bacteria — and other nasty stuff — so washing your hands won't be enough to completely de-germ yourself. In other words, you need to hop in the shower straightaway.
Showering will also sweep away sweat, which may serve as a carrier for germs. What's more, you excrete toxins through sweat, including chemical pollutants and heavy metals like lead, cadmium and mercury.
A good scrub can wash off these potentially harmful substances, which may affect the robustness of your immune system, says Dr. Li, who recommends using a plant-based Castile soap.
5. Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate
"Dehydration puts a stress on the body, which can lower the immune response," says Dr. Li. To keep your body's disease-fighting defenses strong, sip plenty of H2O throughout the day, including during your workouts.
"I recommend an average of two to three liters of filtered water a day," says Dr. Li, who adds that the amount will differ from person to person depending on your body type or how active you are. As a general rule of thumb, drink enough water so that your pee is a light yellow color.
6. Beware of the Bathroom
According to Dr. Li, the gym's bathroom is where you're most likely to come across creepy contagions, including contact infections like plantar warts and athlete's foot. That's because humid environments like steaming showers and pool areas are basically breeding grounds for germs.
To avoid soiled surfaces, never walk barefoot in the bathroom (or anywhere else in the gym for that matter!). Safer to sport sandals or flip-flops wherever you go. And, of course, always wash your hands, using tissues to turn off the sink and open the door on your way out. You don't want to recontaminate yourself!
Another way to protect yourself? Cover up any open cuts or scrapes. Your skin is the first line of defense against infection, so even an aggravated hangnail or the smallest shaving nick can create an opening for bacteria to enter your body.