HPV from your spin bike? Herpes from your yoga mat? Docs break down the real health risks you face at the gym, plus how to protect yourself.
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Grimy gym equipment is gross, but is it also a health hazard? Well, sort of. While there's no need to freak out, there's also no denying that the gym is a veritable breeding ground for all kinds of bacteria. Ahead, docs weigh in on the real risks and germs lurking in five different places in the gym—and share what you can do to protect yourself. (Related: 8 Gross Bathroom Habits That Are Bad for Your Health)
A steamy yoga studio is a playground for all types of bacteria and viruses, which thrive in these types of warm, moist environments. In fact, contact with a dirty yoga mat can potentially cause everything from acne to toenail fungus, says David A. Greuner, M.D., managing director and cofounder of NYC Surgical Associates, who also adds MRSA (a severe staph infection) and even herpes to this list. While these are all real risks, naturopathic physician Jennifer Stagg is quick to point out that these type of skin infections aren't especially common, since they depend on the overall health of each person's skin microbiome. Colds, flu, and stomach bugs are much more likely, she adds. And regarding herpes: As long as you're not doing your downward dog in the buff, you're likely in the clear; herpes is typically spread through mucous membranes or broken skin.
What to do: Happily, a thorough wipe down with an antibacterial wipe is sufficient, notes Dr. Greuner. This should be done both pre- and post-class—even if you're using your own yoga mat—since it can pick up and harbor germs from the floor. Be sure to shower and wash your workout clothes afterward, too.
A 2015 study published in the journal Sexual Health found that HPV (the human papillomavirus, responsible for genital warts and cervical cancer) was found even in women who were virgins, concluding that it could be contracted from doctor's offices, or from public spots like toilets and bike seats. Unnerving info for sure, but there's no need to cancel your spin class or avoid the elliptical at the gym. You're much more likely to catch the common cold or a stomach bug from a dirty bike than you are to contract HPV. Turns out the real risk lies in the handlebars, not the seat: "More pathogens are transmitted through hand contact, making dirty handles on the bike the most likely way to transfer germs," says Stagg.
What to do: Again, that good ol' pre- and post-class wipe down is a must. As far as HPV goes, if you want to be extra cautious, opt for longer leggings instead of booty bike shorts to ensure everything down there' is completely covered. Also important: Avoid touching your face. "All it takes to pick up a virus or bacteria is to touch an affected surface and then put your hand near your eyes, nose, or mouth," explains Stagg. This applies to your towel too; if you have one draped over the handlebars, make sure you're using only the side NOT touching the bars to wipe your face.
All those dirty hands constantly gripping weights and dumbbells makes them another hotspot for all kinds of bugs and bacteria. The most common? Respiratory and G.I. infections, like the hard-to-kill norovirus, which lingers on surfaces, notes Stagg.
What to do: It may not necessarily be standard gym protocol, but wipe down your weights after use. Weightlifting gloves can also act as a protective barrier (though not a foolproof one, since your fingertips are still exposed). It sounds simple, but a thorough hand washing after any lifting sesh is your best method of protection.
Since there's typically more (sneaker-clad) foot contact than hand contact on these machines, they usually harbor slightly less bacteria than free weights. But that doesn't make them squeaky clean by any means. According to equipment reviews site FitRated, the average treadmill had 74 times more bacteria than a public bathroom faucet. #Gross.
What to do: Keep your hands to yourself. Not only will adopting a hands-off policy help you avoid picking up a nasty bug, but it will also improve your workout. Think about it: You shouldn't be holding onto the handles when running on a treadmill or climbing on a StairMaster, and if you're on the elliptical, letting go of the handles will make your workout more challenging. As always, clean off the entire machine afterward, and don't touch your face until after you've washed your hands.
The Locker Room
Similar to yoga studios, the warm and muggy environment is bacteria's dream home. Here, fungal infections such as ringworm and athlete's foot are prevalent. "Both pose a real risk because they're profoundly contagious and can survive for a long time," says Dr. Greuner. Saunas and steam rooms are also potentially problematic: "They're known to spread a variety of infections. Our skin softens when exposed to heat, making us far more prone to infectious transmission," Dr. Greuner cautions.
What to do: Slip on those flip-flops and don't take them off. Bare feet are a major no-no in the locker room, both in the shower and out. If you are going to use the sauna or steam room, sit on a towel and be sure to shower afterward.