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Germ warfare moves to the gym

  • Story Highlights
  • Crowded gyms are a prime breeding ground for germs, viruses, fungi
  • Abrasions, blisters from vigorous exercise can create openings for infection
  • Sweating "superhydrates the skin," making blisters more likely
  • Always wipe down gym equipment before use
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By Linda Saether
CNN
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Our visits to the gym seem to be a lot more dangerous lately. Forget battling only boredom and feeling the pain. Now the fight is us against them -- and the enemy is germs.

With large numbers of people sharing  equipment, mats, lockers and showers,  germs travel far and wide in gyms.

With large numbers of people sharing equipment, mats, lockers and showers, germs travel far and wide in gyms.

To properly fight back you need a three-tiered approach, or so says extra-fit YMCA Group Vice President Kristin McEwen. "The time to de-germ and get yourself primed to fight off gym germs is actually before you work out."

It's really all about what's in the bag, she tells us. And what's in her ultrabreathable, pink, Nike backpack? Her workout germ-fighting weapons.

The bag holds a clean water bottle, plastic bags, workout gear, a clean towel, flip-flops for the shower, a fresh bag of wipes and everyone's weapon of choice, the don't-leave-home-without-it pocket hand sanitizer.

Why has gym-going become so much about germ fighting?

It boils downs to making sure the bad doesn't outweigh the good, says Dr. Brian Adams, director of University of Cincinnati Sports Dermatology Clinic. "Gyms are great for fitness," he says, "but like fun in the sun, you just have to be careful."

"The main microorganism culprits are bacteria, viruses and fungi. And there are several reasons gym-goers are at risk," he said. Video Health for Her: More on de-germing your gym bag »

First, it's all in the numbers of people who share equipment, exercise mats, lockers and showers that enable germs to travel to and from many an athlete.

Second, Adams says, gym-goers' activities put them at risk.

"The first several layers of the skin are like a castle wall protecting the athlete from outside marauders," Adams says. "Abrasions from mats and weight equipment, blisters from constant rubbing while running or using weight equipment both help to break down the castle wall and allow microorganisms to enter the skin."

That explains why McEwen's second line of defense is disinfectant.

Before this athlete gets on any piece of equipment or lies on a mat, she goes after it with either her own or gym-provided wipes.

A chemical kill for those germs trying to cling on, waiting to charge those broken castle walls? Who knew germ-fighting could sound like a bedtime story.

Third, breaking a sweat might also be a germ welcome mat. "Sweating super-hydrates the skin and makes athletes more likely to develop blisters," Adams says. "Sweating by itself may alter the castle and allow penetration of the bugs."

The bugs in question run the gamut from fungi, which cause ailments such as athlete's foot, to viruses that cause herpes or a potentially deadly infection known as MRSA, or methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus.

News of MSRA spreading at gyms apparently has taken gym-germ fighting up a notch. More gyms are offering up lots of hand sanitizer, Adams notes, although not all do as much as he wishes they would.

"My gym has as many, maybe more, wall-mounted hand sanitizers than my medical office," he says. Most gyms offer up some at central locations, including the main entrance or in the locker room areas.

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Allthough she's been health conscious for all of her nearly 20 years working at the YMCA, McEwen has become even more vigilant against germs.

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Now she fights those germs even after her workout. She takes home her locker room flip-flops in their own plastic bag. Her sweaty gym clothes also get their own private plastic bag ride home. Then it's airing out for the shoes, and hot-water washing for the towel and clothes.

These extra measures add a little more time and effort to her workout, but McEwen believes it's just one more aspect to keeping healthy -- which is, after all, the reason she works out in the first place.

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