What nasties can you pick up at the gym?

Melissa Pearce
Tuesday, June 7, 2011
Image: Thinkstock
Never walk barefoot in common areas, particular moist ones such as showers.
"Fungal spores can persist for months or years in bathrooms, changing rooms and swimming pools"
Melissa Pearce
Most gym users don't bargain on bringing home more than a pair of sweaty track pants from a work-out but the weights circuit and changing room are havens for a multitude of germs and fungi.

Follow these simple steps to avoid providing an invitation to microbial nasties and pesky skin conditions.

Dr Cathy Reid, dermatologist and honorary secretary of the Australasian College of Dermatologists, says that fungal infections (also known as tinea) that lurk in your gym change room or on the bench press can affect people of all ages, but are more common in adults.

"The fungal spores can persist for months or years in bathrooms, changing rooms and swimming pools," she says. "Walking barefoot on a communal floor or sharing a towel can result in infection."

Fungi's friends and foes
If you wanted to play it ultra-safe you'd never take your shoes and socks off in a gym and would shower at home. But if you have to, ensure you never walk barefoot in common areas, particular moist ones such as showers or poolside.

Dr Reid says thongs make a good barrier, always completely dry your feet and use an anti-fungal powder in shoes.

Cotton socks are also preferable to synthetic, as they allow skin to breathe more easily and discourage sweat. After a work-out, get out of your sweaty clothes as quickly as possible too.

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Jock itch, anyone?
Tinea is not only confined to feet and can easily spread to the groin in men, which certainly makes one look at the exercise bike seat with a degree of squeamishness (though luckily, any real threat is unlikely).

Tinea may occur in a number of different patterns:

  • It can appear as maceration and scaling in the toe webs.
  • A collection of small blisters, roughness or scaling can appear on the soles of the feet.
  • In the groin it presents as redness extending down on to the upper thighs.
  • Tinea in nails causes discoloration and thickening of the nail plates.

Tinea usually responds well to treatment with over-the-counter antifungal products such as powders, lotions or creams. If the rash is widespread or involves the nails tablet treatment will be needed.

A lesser-known essential gym accessory that may be home to fungi is the humble yoga mat. Just as the sharing of towels is a bad idea, opt to bring your own mat and avoid communal mat use. Remember to wash your mat from time to time on a gentle machine cycle with the addition of eucalyptus oil and dry it in the warm sun.

Combating communal contagions
Washing your hands or using hand sanitiser after a bus or train ride is advisable. The same care applies when touching equipment that might have been recently handled by another sweaty, sick or infected person who could present risks to your health.

Staph, E. coli, strep-bacteria, MSRA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus) and the influenza virus are all found in gyms. Coming into contact with sweat left behind on a machine could lead to a staph infection, usually manifesting in the form of pimples or boils, but sometimes more seriously on entering the bloodstream. Eye infections and stomach bugs are other possibilities.

"Most nasty germs are killed by even simple handwashes and soap and water," says Dr Ronald McCoy, a spokesman for the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners. "And always wash your hands before eating."

The easiest way to protect yourself is by wiping equipment before and after use, with the gym's disinfectant spray or your own wipes. There are also some sports clothing companies experimenting with antibacterial properties.

Be responsible gym user
If you have a cut, wear a plaster at the gym to protect yourself and others and avoid exercising at the gym when you're sick, no matter how strong the urge to sweat a bug out.

And when you're back at home, don't forget to clean your water bottle (ideally in a dishwasher) in order to prevent bacterial build-up.

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