You already wash your sweaty workout clothes (right?), and, hey, you’re not against a squeeze of hand sanitizer. But if that’s all you’re doing to protect yourself from gym germs, we’ve got news for you: Your gym bag is funkier than your Zumba moves.
Jessica Snyder Sachs, author of the book Good Germs, Bad Germs: Health and Survival in a Bacterial World, says fitness facilities are chock-full of germs — some benign and some a tad more worrisome. And if you’re neglecting your duffel bag, you’re probably toting them all around town.
“The germs that can hurt you are the ones that go from people to people,” Snyder Sachs says. “Two biggies that get spread at the gym are fungal organisms, like the one that causes athlete’s foot, and MRSA. Staph has always been with us, but it keeps getting more drug-resistant; it can live a couple days.” Germs that spread common colds and stomach viruses make themselves at home on gym equipment, too.
But Snyder Sachs warns against gym-germ paranoia, since human skin is a strong barrier to disease, and the primary weak points are bodily entrances. The best way to stay healthy? Never touch your nose and eyes at the gym until you’ve washed your hands. Then go home, empty your gym bag, and wash these seven items ASAP.
You? Borrow a yoga mat? Never. But the one you tote with you transports germs from the studio to your bag to your house and back again if you don’t clean it. Before class, drape a towel over your mat before you strike a Downward Dog; at home, wipe the mat down using a chemical-free cleaner (avoid ones that contain triclosan, which can breed antibiotic resistance).
MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) infections are linked to shared equipment, so bypass that hamper of “clean” towels and bring your own—then use it. Lay it down over every weight bench and surface you sit or stretch on. Snyder Sachs suggests that you mark one side of your towel with a dot of permanent marker and let only that side touch the mat; then you can use the other side to wipe your misty brow. Take it home every day and machine-wash it in hot water with hydrogen peroxide-based detergent.
You refill your water bottle (then twist it shut with sweaty hands), you set it down on the floor (fingers crossed you don’t knock it over!), then you touch the weights that 50 other gym rats have gripped that day (that’s a lot of sweaty palms) … and later you lift the bottle to your lips (let’s not even talk about all the bacteria in your mouth). Dump the contents and clean the bottle in the dishwasher every night—no excuses!
Snyder Sachs says electronics are major vectors for spreading infection. Just think about earbuds: You tap those icky treadmill buttons, then use the same fingers to nestle your bud directly inside your ear. “Wipe them off with some alcohol gel—which leaves no chemical residue—before and after use, and while you’re at it, clean your phone, too.”
“Germs are the least of it: On shoes, I’m more concerned with the chemicals on them; we’re tracking around all sorts of stuff,” the author says. Wipe off your sneaker soles regularly and store them in a dedicated compartment of your gym bag. Oh, and your shower flip-flops? “Showers and locker-room floors are full of the fungus that causes athlete’s foot. Shower shoes help a little, but the shower may fill up a bit, and the water and germs go right over those shoes.” Thus, Snyder Sachs suggests regularly washing those shower slippers, too (try the dishwasher), and swiping some hydrogen peroxide between your toes once you’re home.
The stretchy sweat saver around your head? It needs a bath. Washing machines can damage some stretch fabrics, so hand-wash them at the sink using warm water and shampoo or mild detergent. Same goes for headbands’ sweat-collecting cousins: hair elastics, bandannas and armbands.
You’re schlepping around a big bag o’ germs, and even if you clean the gym gear inside of it, microbes are still lurking in your bag. “Bacteria won’t go crazy in your bag,” Snyder Sachs says. “Bacteria doesn’t want the bag; it wants you!” She continues: “Nowadays, you see all these UV disinfection devices, but you don’t have to buy one. Just turn your bag inside out and put it in the sun every couple days.” If the bag’s washable, toss it into the machine once a week.