Staying Healthy in the Health Club
Robert Robinson, III MD
As is the case every year, many of us have set New Years resolutions to be fitter, healthier, and slimmer by the summer. While spring and summer may still seem a far off, the reality is that they are right around the corner. If you are preparing to utilize that gym membership that you received as a gift but have not yet put to use, make sure that you review these pointers that will help to keep you healthy in the health club.
While our intent in going to the gym is always to become healthier, what many don’t realize is that going to a public gym poses certain health risks. From equipment related injuries to contamination with bacteria and fungi, there are a number of health risks associated with use of the health club. It is important that you are aware of the potential risks and dangers present at the health club so that you can take the necessary precautions to protect yourself.
The most common contagious bacterial infection that can be passed in health club facilities is Staphylococcus aureus, more commonly referred to as “Staph”. Many great professional athletes are all too familiar with this bacterium. From Grant Hill to Peyton Manning, many athletes have suffered from infections caused by the more virulent form of this organism known as MRSA (Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus). The reason that this is such an issue in health clubs is that “Staph” can live on surfaces for many days to weeks. Add this to the increasing prevalence of MRSA in the community and the fact that person after person is using the same equipment often times neglecting to clean between uses, and you can see how there is a risk for widespread infections.
So what do you need to know to prevent yourself from acquiring this sometimes life threatening infection?
First of all, it is important that you clean any equipment that you use before and after you use it. Never assume that the health club personnel or the last person to use the equipment took the time to thoroughly clean the surface. More and more health clubs and other public facilities are recognizing the public health crisis that this presents and as a result are providing alcohol based hand sanitizers and other cleansing agents for your use. It is important to continue to the wipe exercise equipment with these alcohol- based solutions and cleansing agents for at least 25 seconds or until the surface has dried.
Ways to prevent acquiring MRSA in the health club:
- Practice good hand hygiene – Keep your hands clean by washing thoroughly with soap and water or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer
- Cover up – Keep cuts, abrasions, and scratches clean and covered with a bandage until the skin has healed
- Keep it to yourself – Don’t share personal items such as razors or towels
- Wash it off- Always shower after using public equipment which may have been exposed to the Staph bacteria (i.e. health club equipment)
What are the Symptoms of a MRSA infection?
Any skin infection can potentially be a MRSA infection. Most community acquired MRSA infections appear as pustules or boils that are often swollen, red, painful or have pus or other drainage. The characteristic history is that an individual notices a “pimple”, or what they believe is a “spider bite” on their skin. The bump becomes progressively more red, swollen and painful and may start to drain or “leak” pus.
Often times individuals delay seeking medical attention because of the benign appearance of the initial lesion, however as this progresses it becomes difficult if not impossible to ignore. Most MRSA infections occur at areas of visible skin trauma such as cuts or abrasions, and areas of the body covered by hair (e.g. bearded area of men, groin, armpit, back of neck).
Treatment of bacterial skin infections should always take place under the care of a licensed health care provider. Never attempt to “lance” boils or “pop” pimples as this can worsen the infection and often result in spread of the infection. See your primary health care provider if you suspect that you have a bacterial skin infection
Fungal infections are also highly communicable and often passed in health club facilities. Fungi, (plural of fungus) enjoy warm moist places and thrive in this type of environment. These infections are most often acquired at the health club through the use of communal showers.
The most common form of fungal infection that most may be familiar with is athlete’s foot. The name can be misleading and some might think that having athlete’s foot is a normal part of being an athlete. In fact the only thing that makes athletes more prone to developing fungal skin infections is the use of communal showers and the presence of moist or tight clothing against the body for prolonged periods of time (i.e. spandex and other performance apparel). Fungal skin infections can occur on any skin surface and are not limited to just the feet. Some signs and symptoms of fungal skin infections include:
- Light blotches/skin discoloration
- Itching skin
- Flaking skin
Ways to prevent fungal skin infections:
- Always wear shower shoes when using public showers
- Always remove wet/moist clothing – It is common to have worked up a good sweat after an effective workout. After your exercise routine remove your wet clothes to shorten the amount of time that bacteria or fungi are in contact with the skin
- Always shower after completing your workout routine
- Dry yourself completely after showering -This will help to decrease moisture on the skin’s surface and decrease the likelihood of fungus to thrive
Equipment Related Injuries
While it is something that we all inherently know, most of us fail to put into practice the concept of partnering up at the gym. Additionally, because we’ve been “working out” since high school, we assume that we know proper technique and how to best use the equipment at the health club. This is where the experts’ assistance is of tremendous help. Most health clubs have professional trainers whose services can be obtained for a fee. Take advantage of introductory offers and free training sessions to become familiar with the health club equipment and to get pointers on its proper use.
Most equipment related injuries result from improper use. It is also important to “buddy up” because let’s face it, when your finishing your set of 30 reps of 225 lbs there’s a slight chance that you may experience fatigue. Having a “spotter” can prevent embarrassing and sometime life threatening injuries.
So as you begin to embark on the journey of a “new and improved” physical appearance, and prepare to get the physique of your dreams, use these tips to ensure that you have a safe, and injury-free health club experience.