CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Now that cold-and-flu season is in full swing, you might have noticed increased attention given to germs in your gym. Workout centers are optimal breeding grounds for bacteria, fungus and viral organisms.Because personal cleanliness plays such a large role in reducing the spread of infections, responsible fitness centers and health clubs will post signs offering etiquette rules and tips for healthy hygiene. Exceptional centers and clubs go a step further. For example, instead of tips, they establish policies with mandatory rules -- rules that are continually monitored by staff.When public health officials begin discussing influenza and viral infections, you may start to think twice about going to the gym to work out. If so, consider this: The health benefits of regular physical activity far outweigh the risks, especially if you understand how to safeguard yourself and others.The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston found that it isn't sweat but rather the lingering moisture from sweat that helps germs survive. Most germs have a relatively short lifespan, but when moisture is not wiped away and sanitized regularly, germs have more time to grow.Here are some rules to follow so you can stay healthy while working out:
Before joining a gym, walk around and inspect bathrooms, shower stalls, pool areas and locker facilities for cleanliness and proper ventilation. Find out if there is an active housekeeping staff and if there are posted hygiene rules. There should be antibacterial wipes or liquid readily available in all areas at all times. Use two separate towels -- one to wipe handlebars/machines before and after you work out and another to wipe sweat from your face. I recommend you bring your own towels, particularly for your face. It's wise to bring your own water bottle from home because public water fountains can host more bacteria than toilets. Use sanitizing wipes to clean equipment before and after use. Use hand sanitizer often. If it is not provided by the gym, bring your own. Cover cuts or abrasions with Band-Aids (and bring extras in case they slip off). This keeps infection away from your cut and your germs away from machines. Protect your feet by wearing some type of nonslip shoe or flip-flop in the gym, shower pool deck, sauna, steam room and hot tub areas. Don't share soap, deodorant, razors, water bottles, goggles or towels. If you are into yoga or Pilates, invest in your own mat -- this is a personal item. When mats are available for your use in gyms, remember that it's impossible for staff to clean and disinfected them after each use. Wash and dry your gymwear after each use. Leaving hot, sweaty clothing and socks in a damp gym bag is a perfect place for germs to thrive. Don't forget to wash the gym bag too! Keep a towel around you to avoid contracting germs when sitting on benches and other shared surfaces such as in the steam room or sauna. Seriously, this is a no-brainer. Get your sleep each night. If your sleep is reduced by 40 percent or more, your immunity decreases 50 percent. Eight hours of sleep each night will restore your energy and disease protection. Try to avoid touching your face while working out. Sweat and other germs picked up at the gym flock to the entryways of the nose, ears and mouth. If you are not feeling well, stay away from the gym. If you have cold symptoms from the chin up, take a week off; and from the chin down, take two weeks off. No one appreciates you lifting and sneezing beside them. If not showering, always wash your hands thoroughly before you leave the gym. Don't forget about the steering wheel in your car. It could probably use a good disinfectant.Gyms get an enormous amount of attention with regard to germs because they are a health facility. However, germs are present in every setting, including your home, which makes it impossible to eliminate all risk during flu season.Regular exercise and its benefits will be your greatest ally against germ warfare and will keep your immunity running high. You may end up with a cold or a virus or even a bacterial infection, but people who are fit are usually less affected and recover much faster.At this time of year, we must all be diligent in practicing good gym etiquette and understand that gym staff and members alike are equally responsible to have a healthy outcome for all.Cindy Boggs, fitness presenter, author and Activate America director, has been an ACE-certified instructor/trainer since 1989. Send your questions about fitness, training or health to her at YMCA of Kanawha Valley, 100 YMCA Drive, Charleston, WV 25311, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Look for Cindy's award-winning fitness advice book, "CindySays ... You Can Find Health in Your Hectic World," at www.cindysays.com, or contact the YMCA at 304-340-3527.