How to avoid germs at the gym

Posted by for Strong Women

The gym could be a hotbed for germs with all the shared equipment, but should we be avoiding it like the plague? We have the ultimate guide to working out and not getting sick. 

The coronavirus outbreak has dominated our news feeds over the past few months. While in the UK we aren’t being advised to stop going about our daily routines, most of us are feeling alert to the fact that public spaces are hot spots for germ transmission. 

With that, we can’t ignore that one of the grubbiest places we spend time in is the gym. There’s something ironic about the place we head to for health and wellbeing also being a hotbed for bacteria, thanks to all the shared equipment and bodily fluid. 

Equipment in the free weights area i.e. barbells and dumbbells contain huge amounts of germs – more than 360 times the amount of bacteria than a toilet seat, to be precise. Now, where’s that antiseptic spray? 

How do I avoid germs at the gym?

There’s the obvious measures to take: washing your hands (the most recent advice issued from health secretary Matt Hancock is to wash your hands for 20 seconds – or to the tune of happy birthday, which lasts roughly the same time), and wiping down equipment before and after use. 

But it might actually be your breathing technique that’s putting you in the most danger. When we exercise we breathe through the mouth more often than when we would in our day-to-day life, both in order to help with our form and in order to get more oxygen to the muscles. But that means our breath isn’t passing through the nose, which acts as a filtration system to filter bacteria and toxins. 

“Most respiratory viruses, such as the coronavirus, are spread via droplets. If you’re breathing heavily – including panting, coughing and spluttering – then are more likely to spread infection to others,” explains Dr. Hazel Wallace BSc MSc MBBCh ANutr, NHS doctor and associate registered nutritionist. “I wouldn’t avoid mouth breathing whilst exercising out of fear of catching an infection, but one can be mindful of keeping a distance (greater than one metre) from people who may be sick.”

In fact, Dr. Wallace says exercising will help boost your immune system. Alongside a good workout, she also prescribes general healthy habits in order for your body to be able to fight infection: getting enough sleep, eating well and taking sufficient rest so that your body isn’t in a stressed state.

But what about working out in a face mask? The short answer: don’t bother. Not only will it be really annoying during your workout, “there is very little evidence of widespread benefit for members of the public. They can also encourage people to touch their face, mouth and nose more often,” adds Dr. Wallace.

“Be alert, but don’t panic. Remember not everyone who coughs or sneezes has the coronavirus and at the moment cases are under control in the UK. However the situation is evolving daily. If you are feeling unwell then do stay at home and avoid the risk of spreading infection to the rest of the gym community.”

5 easy ways to avoid germs at the gym, according to the experts

Take Vitamin D

“Vitamin D is vital for immune function,” explains nutritionist Dr Sarah Brewer. But during the colder months, we don’t get enough of it. “Public Health England advises that everyone in the UK take a vitamin D supplement of 10 micrograms per day during the autumn and winter months, when UV exposure is too low to allow the natural synthesis of vitamin D3 in the skin.”

Avoid surfaces where possible

“Ultimately, you can never be sure who has touched equipment before you use it,” says Dr Grace Roberts from Wolfson Institute for Experimental Medicine. “Wiping down equipment gets rid of sweat but it is unclear how effective it is in terms of ridding any viruses or bacteria that may be present. Also, if you use the same towel to wipe surfaces as well as your face you are introducing more contact. I’d avoid water fountains, you never know if people have accidentally made contact either with their bottles or directly with their mouths. It may be wise to fill up at home. Different viruses have been reported to last up to five days on surfaces such as steel and plastic.“ 

Keep hydrated

A study by the University of Manchester found drinking water can help to ward off flu, as it keeps the defensive mucus in the nose moist so make sure to chug (home filled) bottles. “Eight small glasses a day are recommended,” says Dr Brewer. “Drinking more water was also linked to fewer respiratory infections and headaches and may boost a particular immune response to enable the body to better fight the viruses.”

Be mindful of other uses

“Especially in times of outbreaks, remember that your hygiene affects others around you,” says Dr Roberts. “If you are sick, stay at home or do cardio outside. Take tissues with you and if you use one, bin it straight away. Cough and sneeze into a tissue or into hands and wash immediately afterwards. Wipe down everything after use – which we should all be doing anyway.”

Ask your gym about their cleaning policies

As an individual user of a gym, there is only so much you can do to limit spread of diseases. So, Dr Roberts advises asking those responsible how they’re looking after you: “ask your gym how regularly they clean the equipment and what they use. Hopefully equipment and facilities are regularly cleaned with disinfectant, but if they aren’t then report any areas that look like they need cleaning.”

Anyone experiencing symptoms of coronavirus should call NHS 111. Do not go to a GP surgery, pharmacy or hospital.

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