Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Strong muscles, slim hips and a wretched flu

Gyms may be rife with germs

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Exercise may not be the only thing you get at the gym.

Gyms, fitness centres and yoga studios are great places for the transmission of germs, bacteria, viruses and fungi. Researchers have found E. coli, strep bacteria and the influenza virus in gyms and on athletic equipment.

People who go to the gym know even the cleanest ones are still germy, but there are germs everywhere, they say.

"The issue," says Graham Gibbons, a YMCA member, "is whether or not your personal antibodies are strong enough to fight them off. If you're going to get sick, you're going to get sick.

"As long as you're fairly physically healthy there's no reason to be concerned. If you're worried about being sick, you wouldn't get on a bus."

Gibbons jokes he's sick of exercise, but exercising at the gym hasn't made him sick.

Gordon Nitz, on the other hand, figures he's caught a cold or flu at the gym at least a couple of times in the 13 years he's been working out.

"I come (to the gym) to get healthy, and I walk away getting sick from people with colds or flu on the machines before me who don't wipe them down after using them," Nitz says, "even though there are signs posted that tell you to."

If he sees someone hasn't wiped the equipment down, he'll give it a wipe himself before using it, and he always wipes it down when he's done. He also sneezes into his elbow, not in his hands, and washes his hands before and after he exercises "to make sure the guy behind me is not getting sick if I'm sick." He could jog at home and avoid gym germs, Nitz observes, but he'd also miss out on some great relationships he's made with other people who regularly work out when he does.

The chances of you getting sick from the gym is a "general or baseline risk," says Dr. Chris Sikora, an Alberta medical officer of health. It's as risky as getting sick from going to the bank or the grocery store, places where you also encounter surfaces other people have touched.

"I think there's a perceived higher risk because there are a lot of people in the gym and they're touching everything, and they're sweating."

Thirty minutes of physical activity every day helps keep us all healthy... and for a lot of people, the gym is where we get our physical activity, and that's fine," Sikora says. "It's not a place to be afraid of."

Just use common sense. Don't go to the gym if you're sick. Period. That's the most important thing you can do because nobody wants to be exposed to your cough or your sneezes and what's behind them, he explains.

Wash your hands with soap and warm water at least twice -- before and after hitting the gym. Keep your hands away from your face while you work out. Wipe down gym equipment with a disinfectant before and after using it, and take a shower before heading home. These are all preventive measures that reduce your risk of getting a respiratory illness, especially during cold and influenza season, Sikora says.

Stephen Ridley, a YMCA manager, says there are canisters of wet gym wipes, treated with a mild disinfectant, around the workout centre that members are encouraged to use to wipe off all equipment surfaces they may have touched.

"We ask them to wipe down the dumbbells and the benches but most people fail to do the dumbbells because they don't think about it."

The Y used to have spray bottles of disinfectant and reusable cloths in the workout centre, but replaced them about five or six years ago because, even though germs were being killed on contact, the cloths were wet so people thought they were dirty.

Ridley says spray bottles and cloths are still used to wipe down mats quickly after an exercise class, but then the cloths are immediately thrown into the laundry.

As for the staff, there are cleaning checklists for them to follow, Ridley says. "For the most part, every piece of equipment gets wiped down by a staff member at least once a day."

At Curves, a women-only gym, there are hand sanitizers all over the place, but only staff wipe down the 15 cardio and strength-training machines, using spray bottles of Lysol disinfectant and reusable cloths.

"Staff do it because it's a gym and it has to be clean," explains Jeanette McAuley, a Curves manager.

"I don't even know how many times a day we wipe them down... but we change cloths probably 20 or 30 times a day, depending on how busy we are, and that includes (wiping off) the scale we use to weigh and measure people.

"I make sure my girls are cleaning all the time because I'm a little bit anal when it comes to that," McAuley admits. Although staff discourages people from working out when they're sick, "a lot of people with flu and colds still come to the gym," she adds.

"People notice (that the gym is clean). It's a women's gym; women notice everything. They're mostly concerned about the germ factor, and they're glad to see what we do," McAuley says.

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 22, 2013 D3

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