FITNESS Q&A: ; Should Flu Worries Keep You Away?

Dear Cindy,

I love exercising out-of-doors in warm weather, but once the weather becomes unpredictable and cold, I move indoors. I have been inside now for about a month, taking classes and using resistance machines – but I am becoming more paranoid by the minute. With this year’s flu-shot shortage, and the fact that I am a healthy 44-year- old, I am not eligible for the flu shot which I would normally get. Am I crazy to imagine that I may be doing more damage than good by going to a crowded gym? Should I stay away? – Sherry

Dear Sherry,

You are certainly not alone – or crazy – in your concern, based on the number of e-mails and phone calls I have received lately. You’ve asked a valid question, given the fact that a typical workout facility can be a breeding ground for germs that are as strong as the biceps and triceps they live on.

In fact, germs love the gym. Well, really, they love the moisture that is produced in them – shower stalls, pools, steam rooms and just plain old sweat.

The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston found that it really wasn’t sweat that is the real culprit but rather the moisture from the sweat that helps germs grow. That means there is only a small possibility that germs can be passed along via sweat.

Typically, the germs also have a short life span. The problem comes in when germs are left to grow for extended periods of time when surfaces are not sanitized regularly.

All members at workout centers across the nation should get involved and ask that the environment in which they train be as germ- free as possible. But it is a job that cannot be done by the gym staff alone. It requires mutual cooperation by those working for the gym as well as those working out in the gym.

Their responsibility

Here is what you can expect your exercise facility to do:

* Keep workout areas well ventilated to prevent stale air from being continually recycled.

* Clean the entire facility regularly with a disinfectant solution.

* Make spray disinfectants or wipes readily available to members to use on equipment.

* Adhere to hot tub, whirlpool and swimming pool inspections to make certain that proper levels of germ-fighting chlorine and bromine are maintained.

* Make certain locker rooms, bathrooms, saunas and steam rooms are similarly cleaned and inspected.

* Encourage anyone (staff or members) to avoid coming into the gym when they are sick.

* Supply clean towels and make it mandatory for members to wipe off their equipment when leaving it for the next member.

* Identify the areas of most concern and clean them more often – areas such as stair-climber and bicycle grips, doorknobs, weights and water fountain handles.

Most workout facilities are aware of what it takes to maintain a sanitary gym environment and are diligent about it. But even impeccable cleaning regimens can miss determined germs. This is where the members must take some responsibility in this effort.

Your responsibility

Here is what you should be doing:

* Cover any scrapes or abrasions with a bandage before going to the gym.

* Always bring two different-looking towels (so you can keep them separate) from home. Use one to wipe the sweat from your body and the other to wipe your equipment down once you’ve finished using it.

* Once your workout begins, never touch your face – nose, eyes, mouth – until you’re workout is completed and you have washed your hands thoroughly.

* Use disinfectant supplied by the gym to spray your equipment. If it is not supplied, ask that it be or bring your own.

* Wear shower slippers or flip-flops on pool decks, showers, saunas and steam rooms.

* Bring a clean towel from home to sit on if you use the steam room or sauna. (Flu season may not be the optimum time to use these two rooms.)

* If you are not feeling well, stay away from the gym. If you have cold symptoms from the chin up, take a week off; if you have cold symptoms from the chin down, take two weeks off.

* Carry a gym bag that is washable and wash it often. Take sweaty towels and clothing out of the bag and wash them after each workout.

* Wash your hands thoroughly before and after your workout.

* Carry an alcohol-based hand sanitizer to use if you feel the need.

* Cover your mouth if you should sneeze or cough.

Gee, with all that in mind, it may not seem worth it. But, Sherry, if you are otherwise healthy, I have to tell you that it is worth going. Maintaining your fitness level is the way you stimulate your immune system, and the benefits outweigh the risks.

Remember that the gym setting is not the only place these germs reside. They are in every setting, including your home, so it is impossible to eliminate all risk during flu season. Regular exercise and the benefits it brings you will be your greatest ally in this germ warfare.

Even if you do end up with a cold or a virus or even a bacterial infection – those who are fit are usually affected less and recover faster.

Go to the gym prepared to practice good gym etiquette. It is up to you and the staff to share the responsibility so that you and others can stay healthy and strong all year long.

Cindy Boggs, a free-lance fitness professional and state director of Activate America has been an ACE-certified fitness coordinator/ instructor at the Charleston Family YMCA since 1989. Have a question pertaining to health and/or fitness? E-mail [email protected] or visit her at

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