If you don't already wipe down gym equipment before you use it, you might want to start. As it turns out, gym rats can have some pretty repulsive habits, according to a survey conducted by Nuffield Health, a health firm in the UK.
To get the dirt on what goes on at health clubs, the firm surveyed 2,000 people. The gym sins they discovered: 74 percent of people polled said they had noticed that their fellow gym-goers committed a gym faux pas, like failing to wipe down sweaty equipment; 49 percent admitted to having used water bottles, towels, and toiletries that weren't actually theirs; 18 percent had gone to the gym despite being sick and coughing and sneezing; and 16 percent said they didn't wash their gym clothes between workouts.
Gross, sure, but not necessarily a health risk. There's no concrete, scientific evidence that finds that gyms will make you sick, according to Elaine Larson, Ph.D., director at the Center for Interdisciplinary Research on Antimicrobial Resistance at Columbia University.
That said, having good gym hygiene can somewhat limit your exposure to germs that cause cold, flu, norovirus, athlete's foot, and staph infection—not to mention make you a better neighbor to your fellow fitness junkies.
The key to a cleaner workout session? Simply be attentive, says Donna Duberg, assistant professor of Clinical Laboratory Science at Saint Louis University. "The real trick is you have to keep your hands and your face protected," she says. Here are her tips on how to avoid grimy gym germs.
Tip 1 Buy a Better Bottle
"Plastic water bottles tend to hold bacteria," Duberg says. "The only ones you can be sure of are metal." To clean it properly, just wash it in hot, soapy water. Also, keep an eye on your bottle to make sure someone (like nearly half of the people in the survey!) doesn't sneak a sip while you aren't paying attention.
Tip 2 Wipe, Wash, Repeat
Whether you decide to constantly wipe down the equipment, or cleanse your own hands, or a combination of the two, keeping your hands clean can help make sure gym germs don't do any damage. "Keep your own little area organized and hygienic, and you're going to be protected," says Duberg. After using each machine or set of weights, use the hand sanitizer and wipes that should be provided by your gym to keep germs at bay.
Tip 3 Clean Your Gear
"Dirty, dark, moist gym bags are great for fungi—they'll grow just fine in the interior," says Duberg. There are several ways to avoid contaminating your gym bag: "Put your dirt clothes in a plastic bag, take them out, and empty the plastic bag right into the washer," she says.
And don't forget about your sneakers. Like your dirty clothes, slip them into a plastic bag before throwing them into your gym bag. Then, once you get home, wipe them off with a disinfecting wipe (including the bottoms), let them air dry, and toss them back in the next day, she suggests.
Tip 4 Shower Smarter
Although they're not completely foolproof, flip-flops will "provide a barrier between you and the floors and you and the shower room," says Duberg. But take note: Once they get wet in the shower, fungal spores can still get on your feet.
To minimize the risk, soak your sandals in a 10% bleach solution once in a while, she says. That'll help keep them—and your feet—as clean and fungus-free as possible.
Tip 5 Take a Rest Day
"Don't go to the gym if you have a really bad cold and you're sneezing and your nose is running," she says.
Also, if you have an open wound, you might want to stay away from the gym that day to avoid infection, or infecting anything you might touch while you're working out.
Tip 6 Hold Off on the Hot Tubs
If you have an open wound, skin, or other infections, absolutely do not use Jacuzzis or common pools, warns Duberg. If you do, you'll not only transmit bacteria, but you'll be more susceptible to bacteria that are already lurking in the water.