Unless you live in a hypoallergenic bubble, it’s awfully hard to steer clear of germs. And during cold and flu season, or if you’re in a job that involves working with children, it’s even harder. But what if your workouts are making you sick? No, I’m not referring to pushing so hard it makes you hurl; I’m referring to the parasites, viruses, and bacteria that live on gym equipment, flooring, and even your shoes.
The New York Times recently ran a story about a high school student who almost died from an antibiotic-resistant form of staph infection, which he most likely contracted from an exercise mat. More and more dermatologists and podiatrists are seeing cases of plantar warts, fungi, and rashes that they’re attributing to shared equipment in gym or yoga classes.
“Not a problem!” you retort, “I do P90X® in my living room, so I don’t have to worry about this.” Think again . . . because bugs can find their way into your home more easily than you’d think. Eighty percent of disease is transmitted through interactions with someone who’s carrying germs, or touching a surface where those organisms live. So if you meet a friend for lunch, go to a meeting at work, or play with your kids in the park, then hit the home gym and crank out 60 minutes of cardio, you spread the germs to your gear, where bacteria can survive for days and viruses can hang out for weeks. The often sweaty and warm conditions are the perfect breeding grounds for these bugs.
And it’s not just exercise gear. Charles P. Gerba, Ph.D., a professor of microbiology at the University of Arizona, found that after 3 months of wear, 13 percent of shoes carry E. coli bacteria, and 90 percent of shoes carry traces of feces. So unless you have a pair of workout shoes earmarked specifically for indoor use, you’re tracking germs into your house, and probably onto your equipment.
So what can you do? Let’s look at some steps you can take for better home gym hygiene.
A good portion of the world’s population removes all shoes before entering the home. Maybe their flooring is just more delicate, but perhaps it’s that they’re more aware of what they’re bringing into their homes. You can pick up some of the worst shoe-germs simply from walking down the street, and while it’s hard to avoid those germs on the mats of your local gym, you do have the option of keeping them off that fancy plyo mat at home.
The ideal solution would be to segregate one pair of athletic shoes just for your workouts, but if a second pair of athletic shoes isn’t an option, throwing your sneakers into a washing machine every few weeks can kill a plethora of bugs. If your shoes aren’t tough enough to take the pounding, you can spray the soles with Lysol®, then clean the rest of the shoe by hand with a gentle cleaner. It may take a bit of time, but isn’t that better than doing push-ups on a poopy surface?
Dumbbells/medicine balls/ankle weights
Resistance equipment comes in a variety of styles—squishy, round, ankle-binding, shiny, handled, neon-colored . . . Regardless, any kind of dumbbell can hold onto bacteria for days at a time. And since they now come in so many shapes and sizes, they give germs more places to hide, especially in foam-covered dumbbells. So until someone invents a self-cleaning dumbbell, please make friends with the Clorox® Disinfecting Wipe. Wiping down equipment daily after use would be ideal, but if you’re too busy, once a week should work. Make sure you get into the creases of the medicine ball and the folds of the ankle weights. If you happen to live in a particularly humid or warm climate, try to swab your gear at least a couple of times a week.
These are probably the biggest pain to clean, as they’re such a large surface. But since you lie on them, roll around on them, and do everything short of lick them, you really need to keep them sanitary. Happily, there are a ton of products out there designed specifically for cleaning yoga mats. There are washes, sprays, and wipes that maintain the mat’s necessary, inherent stickiness while removing the dirt. You can pick up any of these cleaning aids at health food stores or online. Also, should you have the extra cash, there are sticky towels that are made specifically for placing on top of an exercise mat and that can easily be thrown into the washing machine.
If you don’t want to invest in fancy cleaning accessories, you can actually put your mat in the washing machine, as long as you remove it before the spin cycle. Use a mild detergent and wash in cold water only. Let the mat air-dry completely before you use it again, or you might find yourself with a bit of a drippy mess on your hands (and floor).
And if you don’t have access to a washing machine (and you don’t want to drag your mat to a laundromat), taking a shower with your yoga mat can be some multitasking fun. Okay, maybe not fun, but you can lather up your mat with the same antibacterial soap you use on your skin, then rinse the mat completely and hang it over the shower rack to dry.
Pull-up bars/push-up stands
Very similar to dumbbells in terms of nooks and crannies providing cleaning challenges. Like some dumbbells, they often have foam padding. The denseness of this foam makes them incredibly durable, but that same denseness makes it much easier for germs to get trapped, which makes keeping them clean especially important. Harsh chemicals can break down the foam, so Clorox wipes aren’t your best bet for the nonmetal parts. Your best bet is probably to squeeze some mild soapy water into the foam, then squeeze in some clean water to release the dirt. The most important part would be to make sure you dry the foam padding adequately; this will help you avoid mildew. Make sure you squeeze out all excess water with a towel, then if possible, let the whole unit dry completely in the sun.
These wonderful bands, usually made of latex rubber, come in a variety of makes, models, sizes, and colors. Whether you use the tubular kind with handles, or the long flat kind you can tie, resistance bands are durable and portable—and they hold on to germs like there’s no tomorrow. Because there isn’t a whole lot you can do to mess them up, you can fill a sink with warm water and antibacterial dishwashing liquid and drop all your resistance bands in at once. If you want to be particularly OCD-ish, you can also scrub them with a toothbrush, but just letting them sit in the warm soapy water will generally be enough to get them clean. Allow them to air-dry completely before you use them again.
Tidying your workout area seems like a given, but most of us stop at putting our dumbbells behind the couch at the end of the session. However, the floor you were just doing dive bombers on could probably use some attention. If you have hardwood or tile floors, find a good antibacterial cleaning product that’s safe for all floors. Swiffer® even has a product line specifically for wood floors and the germs that love them. If your floor is less sensitive, a bucket of Lysol and some elbow grease will do it.
If you’re a carpet person, there are many options. Dry carpet powders that you sprinkle on carpet and then vacuum up supposedly kill mold, bacteria, and dust mites. Then there are steam and vapor carpet cleaners you can rent or purchase, many with antibacterial and anti-mold properties. And for those of you with green-minded intentions, there are plenty of environmentally friendly cleaning products that can be put into any steamer. You should sweep or vacuum your floors regularly, and aim for a deeper cleaning every few months.
Odds are you had your last official hygiene lesson in 7th-grade health class. And not to sound like your teacher, but showering after a workout is still really important. We know you’re busy, and you were just going to run to the store. We know your INSANITY® video ran 20 minutes longer than you thought it would. We know you just don’t have enough time. But also we know your skin is now swimming in bacteria, and frankly, you smell a little ripe. Furthermore, no one you encounter wants that bacteria handed off to them, so a quick rinse will make you a better acquaintance. And one more thing (although this should be common knowledge): putting on clean clothes after your shower is a vital piece of the puzzle.
Taking a few extra minutes to clean up your workout gear can make the difference between healthy and sick. With an increasing number of people being diagnosed with skin infections caused by Staphylococcus aureus (“staph”) bacteria that are resistant to many antibiotics, there’s no reason to take a chance, because no matter how much you love working out, there’s nothing fun about catching a disease.