We feel smart when we hop on the elliptical machines, stationary bikes and yoga mats to work out. Good for us, right? Mostly. For all benefits our diligent workouts provide (tightening our core, stimulating our brains, stoking our sex drives), they can subject us to a few hidden harms as well: With all the sweat flying around a gym or body movement studio, these health clubs turn out to be a perfect breeding ground for fungal, viral and bacterial infections. What’s more, conditions are also ripe for allergy attacks.
Not to worry, since there are regulations, right? Actually, governmental departments of health don’t regulate gyms too much. You know that miles-long contract you sign when first joining a gym or studio — the one that releases the facility from liability in case of injury? It likely contains verbiage that subjects you to its standard of cleanliness, whatever it may be, and ensures you won’t get all litigious when facilities pump up the nasty. While many gyms do their best to stay on top of, say, mold in the sauna room, it’s up to you to protect yourself from bacteria and chemicals that can spur MRSA or an allergy attack. Here’s how to stay safe and healthy.
It’s Not Your Gym, It’s You While most of us have claimed to be allergic to school, work, or the gym at some point in our lives, it turns out that the latter could actually be true. About 10 percent of Americans suffer from exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (EIB), or a tightening of the airways while exercising.
“The classic problem with EIB is that when people work out, there comes a point where they have enough air hunger that they switch from breathing through their nose to breathing through their mouth,” says Dr. Richard Weber, president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI). “Breathing through the nose is a wonderful way to condition the air. By the time cold or dry air goes from the tip of the nose to the back of the throat, it’s fully heated up and moisturized. But, when you suck in air through the mouth, you’re inhaling dryer, colder air into your air tube. That can set off EIB.”
Wheezing, hacking and general fatigue are all indications that EIB may be messing with your airways, which isn’t particularly helpful, since the same symptoms occur when people are simply out of shape. How to tell whether your airways are acting up or you’re just plain spent? Weber recommends taking it easy when heading back to the gym after a long hiatus and paying attention to how you feel afterward.
“While you’re exerting yourself vigorously, you also have adrenaline going. Adrenaline tends to protect you by opening up your air tubes. When you stop, the adrenaline goes back to normal and your breathing tubes close up, back to its baseline. But with an asthmatic, it continues to gets worse.” Weber says. If you experience a tough time breathing after intense exercise, or you're coughing after more moderate exercise, you may need to see an allergist or be prescribed an inhaler to use before workouts. (The ACAAI also provides an online tool to track your symptoms.)
Another allergy troublemaker? Latex. The chemicals used to cure hard rubber latex used in medicine balls, yoga mats and free weights can cause some exercisers to develop a rash or hives over time. These delayed reactions can take months to build up, but sneezing and coughing while using latex-pumped equipment can serve as an early warning sign, according to Weber. If you notice a rash of little red dots forming on your skin, it may be time to bring in your own latex-free equipment.
It’s Not You, It’s Your Gym
“Fungus and bacteria can harbor in cracked and worn padding on benches and seats,” says David Csillan, a New Jersey-based licensed athletic trainer. Locker rooms can also become a viral and bacterial minefield if used towels or personal hygiene items — like razors or deodorant — are strewn about. Moisture, too, can cause problems. Next time you’re using a gym’s sauna, shower or hot tub, stare up at the ceiling. If you notice water stains on the ceiling, mold is likely growing. (Likewise when a musty smell is present or discoloration appears on wood paneling of sauna walls.)
Having a clean workout environment seems like a no-brainer, but do you know how often your gym schedules cleaning and maintenance? If not, it's time to find out. Ask when floors, machines, tables, knobs, light switches and walls are cleaned, and be sure the facility is using a cleaning agent approved by the Environmental Protection Agency. (If you suffer from allergies to disinfectants, Weber advises to schedule your visit hours away from scheduled cleaning times to ensure airborne chemicals have had time to dissipate).
While all of this can seem gross enough to warrant skipping the gym entirely, the true solution is to practice heightened hygiene: Use a towel as a buffer between your body and a bench, wipe down equipment with cleaning solution before and after use, rock a pair of shower shoes and meticulously dry the skin between your toes after showering, and wash your hands after your workout. It’ll keep that burning feeling exclusively in your muscle groups and away from your flesh.