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Germ Warfare - How to Protect Yourself While Working Out

Germs are everywhere. On the keys of ATM machines, stair railings and door handles. Every day you're exposed to an incredible variety of bacteria, viruses, fungi and protozoa.

Fortunately, most of the time people remain healthy despite what surrounds them. We owe it to an immune system that (for most people) protects us from infectious diseases, and the simple fact that most of the germs we come into contact with can't hurt us.

FACT: People who work out regularly are less likely than inactive people to catch colds or the flu. It's a simple fact that's been proven in study after study.

Working out in a gym, just like any public place, can expose you to some of those germs. You can minimize your exposure to the potentially nasty ones if you take some simple precautions.

BEFORE YOU JOIN A GYM ask if they follow any code of practices covering health and safety. See if they belong to any associations or trade groups that require members meet minimum standards of hygiene or customer care.

Ask gym personnel what cleaning measures they take. It's not unreasonable to ask how often the equipment is wiped down.

Don't forget to give any potential gym the sniff test when you take a tour. Take a deep breath. Does it smell musty? If it does, that means they have a cleaning problem. You want to make sure the gym has good ventilation so you don't have to breath a lot of recycled air.

AT HOME remember to check your gym bag. It should have everything you'll need when you finish your workout so you don't have to borrow from a friend. Staph infections have been documented when people share towels or razors.

TIP: If you bring your own towels, put an X on one side. Keep the X side down so only one side comes into contact with any germs that may be on the equipment.

WHEN YOU GET TO THE GYM wash your hands before you begin your workout, so you reduce the number of germs you're bringing from outside. Wash with plain soap for 20 to 30 seconds, or long enough to sing "Happy Birthday" to yourself twice.

Learn more about the differences between handwashing and hand sanitizers here.

Don't use antibacterial soap to wash your hands. According to a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine it's no more effective than washing properly with plain soap.

Avoid gyms that require you to touch something when you go in. Check-in procedures should be touchless.

UPDATE: 12/4/2015 - Quit using antibacterial soaps.

In a study published in August of 2015, researchers took a look at the effectiveness of antibacterial soaps. Most of the soaps use 0.3% triclosan, the strongest concentration allowed by law. In the study, scientists simulated hand washing conditions using antibacterial and regular soaps. What they found was that there was, "no significant difference in bactericidal activity between plain soap and antibacterial soap at either test temperature."

It took more than nine hours of exposure to triclosan before researchers documented "significantly greater bactericidal effects."

Replace your antibacterial soaps with regular ones.

If you're at high risk for infectious diseases you should use bottles of alcohol-based sanitizers like Purell, which are even more effective at killing germs than soap and water. An added bonus is that the alcohol kills germs without creating antibiotic resistant super-germs.

While the pandemic is going on, avoid classes that don't require masks. Make cure you have at least 10 feet of space between you and the other class participants. Classes outside are even better.

ONCE YOU START WORKING OUT you should always wipe down equipment with a towel after you've used it. If your gym provides a spray bottle with antiseptic cleaner, use it. Sweating at the gym is a good thing, but sweating on the equipment and not wiping it up is unhygienic and rude.

Carry two towels with you. Use one to put down on seats or benches before you use them. I suggest you always put the side with the tag on it against the equipment. That way your body is always touching just the clean side. Use the other towel to wipe your sweat away.

Don't rub your eyes, nose or touch your mouth with your hands. For an infection to spread it must have a point of entry into the body, and you don't want to provide that pathway.

An open cut is another entry point for germs, so clean minor cuts right away with an antiseptic wash and seal them with a waterproof bandage.

FACT: Something as simple as wiping your nose can make you sick! Approximately 30 percent of all humans carry Staphylococcus aureus in their nose. If you happen to wipe your nose and then later touch an open cut you can actually infect yourself with Staph, no outside help necessary.

BACK IN THE LOCKER ROOM always wear your sandals or flip-flops. Walking across a locker room floor can expose bare feet to athlete's foot. You should also put a towel on the locker room bench before you sit down to avoid any bacterial infections left behind by the last person who sat there.

If you have time, take a shower after your workout. You'll wash away germs you might have come in contact with, plus you'll smell a lot better.

WHEN YOU GET HOME AGAIN, dry your weight lifting gloves out. Moist gloves can encourage bacterial growth. Wash them regularly with soap and water just like you would any other gym clothes. Change out of your gym shoes too and wash them at least once every few weeks.

While you're cleaning things, remember to wash your water bottle thoroughly after each use with hot water and soap. If you've got a dishwasher, run it through a cycle. Let it air dry completely before you screw the top on.


Professor E. Randy Eichner and researchers at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. developed a "neck check" model to determine if you should still workout during a cold. According to the study it was probably safe to exercise if you have only above-the-neck symptoms such as a runny nose, sneezing and scratchy throat. The study went on to say you should stay home if you have below-the-neck symptoms like fever, muscle aches or a hacking cough that produces phlegm. We at WeBeFit do NOT agree with that advice. 80% of all germs are spread through human contact such as sneezing or a runny nose, both above-the-neck symptoms.

If you're sick with only above-the-neck symptoms you can exercise AT HOME, but please don't go to the gym and spread it to others.

MYTH: This one comes from runners. Some swear that jogging can clear their clogged sinus passages. The theory is based on the fact that the body releases epinephrine, a supposed natural decongestant.

Unfortunately it's not true. An overflooding of epinephrine can actually harm the immune system and cause more dire consequences to an already weakened immune system.

Eight Symptoms that Require a Doctor's Visit

If you have any of these symptoms, you should skip your workout, stay home from work and see a doctor.

  • Fever of 100.4 Degrees Fahrenheit or Higher
  • Severe Nausea or Vomiting
  • Symptoms that haven't Improved in 7 Days.
  • Swollen glands for 5 or more days.
  • Pain swallowing for 5 or more days.
  • Nasal congestion along with pain on one side of the face.
  • Dark colored mucus.
  • Persistent toothache for 5 or more days.

Antibiotic Use

Some doctors simply prescribe antibiotics to shut a patient up. The drugs won't help, they waste money and risk creating "superbugs" that antibiotics won't be able to kill. Here is a list of common ailments that benefit from antibiotics and a few that don't. Find out what you have before you pop those pills.

YES - Antibiotics Help
Bacterial Bronchitis with a mild fever and minimal mucus
Bacterial Gastroenteritis
Bacterial Meningitis
Bacterial Sinusitis
E. coli
Lyme Disease
Pink Eye
Strep Throat
NO - Antibiotics Won't Help
Chicken Pox
Common Cold
Flu (Influenza)
Human Papillomavirus
Viral Bronchitis (High Fever, Cough, Thick Mucus)
Viral Gastroenteritis

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beginning any diet or exercise program.

Updated 3/17/2013
Updated 12/27/2013
Updated 12/4/2015
Updated 4/9/2018
Updated 6/28/2020

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  • Stay healthy by using your own pen.

    Every time you use someone else’s pen, you may be touching something that’s been in dozens of hands a day. It’s a fantastic way to spread germs. Bring your own pen and you avoid the problem.

    For even more protection, get a pen that also doubles as a stylus for electronic devices (that means it has a rubber like tip). Then when you need to sign charge machines, you can avoid using the electronic pen too.