These days gyms are stocked with the works — mints, hair ties, fancy products — you name it, they’ve got it. But they are also stocked with something else: Germs. That’s right, people. Bacteria and germs live on surfaces and on our bodies all year round, but during cold and flu season it is especially important to be aware of how the things we do to stay healthy can actually leave us feeling sick.
Of course, sometimes life gets in the way of our workouts. We forget our water bottles, we run out of deodorant. It’s in those moments we might feel compelled to mooch off of our better prepared friends or even the gym itself. But before you pass over your Poland Spring, you might want to consider the bacteria you’re passing along with it. Dr. Susan Donelan, Medical Director and Assistant Professor of Infectious Disease at Stony Brook University’s School of Medicine has some tips for staying healthy this cold and flu season and beyond when it comes to your gym routine.
Why is it important to be more diligent about cleanliness at this time of year? Well, aside from it being prime cold and flu season, consider something a little less obvious — commitment. At the start of a new year, people are more focused than ever on staying on track to stick to their new year’s resolutions, which in many cases means a rigid fitness routine. Dr. Donelan says people are likely to “keep going to the gym, even if they feel lousy,” making this time of year “a good time for cross pollination, and we want to try and minimize that.”
While Dr. Donelan says a lot of the things we should not be sharing are obvious, there are a few things she absolutely advises against sharing with our gym buddies. “Water bottles, towels, those types of things. I can’t imagine that someone would want to share those things but if they do, those are the things that would touch your mucus membranes and you wouldn’t want to share them.”
Also on the list is deodorant, which Dr. Donelan says has less to do with cold and flu viruses and is more something you should avoid all year long. “People can be colonized with bacteria such as MRSA and not be aware of it.” We’re creeped out just thinking about the amount of times we have shared deodorant with friends.
When it comes to showering at the gym, Dr. Donelan is not “so keen on the idea,” expressing concerns over how often the containers holding things like shampoo and conditioner are actually cleaned out. She points out that cleaning out the shampoo and conditioner containers might not even be part of a bathroom cleaning routine, and can cause bacteria to build up in side the containers over time. She suggests bringing your own travel sized toiletries, adding that she “would never borrow someone else’s bar soap.”
Donelan suggests bringing a go bag, so that you aren’t ever put in the position to have to borrow something, stocked with any and everything you might need to refresh after a gym session. Even something like hair ties and hair brushes should be kept to yourself, she says. “Hair dryers are OK because they don’t touch the hair, but anything that does touch the hair is probably worth keeping to yourself — someone might have lice or nits.”
Beyond refraining from sharing, there are other steps Dr. Donelan says are helpful in staying healthy at the gym. “Look for tissues and a place to put those tissues when you’re done, hand sanitizer and not just the antiseptic wipes used for equipment,” she says, adding it’s important to use seek hand and coughing hygiene signage around the gym and wiping down common areas like “weights, ellipticals, bicycles. All the things people are coming into contact with either through hands of skin.”
Even if you take all the steps possible to avoid germs, any time you spend in a shared space leaves some room for exposure to things that can make you sick. Fortunately, if you’re equipped with both the knowledge and the supplies to minimize that risk, you can continue working out through New Year’s resolution season and beyond.