If you train at a gym, you need to protect yourself from two primary sources of health risk: infectious disease and injury.
Gyms and health clubs — with people in training breathing heavily, often sweating profusely, lightly clad and in somewhat confined spaces — are great environments for germs to be passed around: viruses, bacteria, protozoa, parasites and even fungi.
Further, injury prevention is of equal consideration if you're to regard the gym as a place to promote health and fitness rather than illness and disease.
Infectious and Contagious Diseases
In simple terms, an infectious disease is one that's transmissible to another person — by any means. 'Contagious' generally means transmission of infectious diseases by contact, but not necessarily as in sexual transmission.
Examples of transmissible diseases (that may not necessarily transmit in your gym environment) include:
- Viruses (influenza, colds, warts)
- Bacteria (bacterial pneumonia)
- Protozoa (amoebic dysentery, giardia)
- Fungi (tinea)
- Parasites (gastrointestinal worms)
While you cannot do much about another gym goer with infectious respiratory droplets (coughs and sneezes), you can maximize your prevention with these precautions:
- Wash your hands with a soap or alcohol product frequently, for about 20 seconds each time, especially in flu season.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth, because viruses are often spread after a person touches something contaminated with the virus and then touches his or her eyes, nose or mouth.
- Use workstation wipes, if they are provided, both before and after you've completed your exercise on that equipment.
- Use your towel to prevent spraying sweat, especially in exercises like treadmill running and cycling.
- Be careful when using water fountain machines, and especially avoid mouth contact. Drink from a personal container if possible.
- Wear flip-flops (thongs) in showers and saunas to prevent plantar warts.
- Don't be afraid to report unsanitary conditions to the facility owner or manager. This might include poorly-cleaned hand-basins, toilet bowls and shower cubicles; dirty floors, rubbish not removed, or any other sign that hygiene practices at the facility are not up to standard.
- Take care with contact if you notice another patron clearly exhibiting symptoms of illness, such as obvious infectious sneezing, coughing, or even vomiting.
- Don't work out at gym if you are ill, even with a mild cold.
- Adopt a sensible approach to hygiene and avoid paranoia. Do the sensible and obvious things, and enjoy your workout.
If you move vigorously on a regular basis, the chances are high that you will sustain an injury from time to time. To prevent athletic injury in the gym, observe these primary precautions:
- Observe good lifting form for each exercise. Ask a supervisor or gym trainer if you are not sure about how to do any particular exercise or use any workstation.
- Progressive resistance training means exactly that. As a beginner, or when re-starting after a break or illness, start with a modest workout program and increase weights, intensity and volume gradually as fitness increases.
- Be aware of other trainers and how much space they need to perform any particular exercise. Most barbell exercises require room to move.
- Be familiar with treadmill and similar motor-driven device safety features. It's not that unusual for power to be lost to such devices (most often accidentally when a plug is dislodged, resulting in a rapid stop).
- Don't continue to work out if you have an acute and painful injury, or if you have a lesser, chronic injury that refuses to heal. See a doctor for a diagnosis.
- Don't overtrain with too much intensity and volume over time. Immune system depression from such training can lead to an increased likelihood of infectious disease, especially upper respiratory tract infections.
Exerc Immunol Rev. 2011;17:6-63. Position statement. Part one: Immune function and exercise. Walsh NP, Gleeson M, Shephard RJ, et al.