How to Avoid Catching the Plague at the Gym

Fighting & Fitness / Friday, December 8th, 2017

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by Dr. Greg Popovich

In the past two decades, hospitals, industrial kitchens, and fitness centers have been invaded by so-called “super bugs,” which are antibiotic-resistant bacteria.  These bugs are potentially deadly, killing more Americans per year than breast cancer, automobile accidents and AIDS—combined.  Infections caused by these germs kill the equivalent of one full jumbo jet crashing into the ocean every single day.  Even more disturbing is the fact that despite greater hand-washing and disinfecting regimens in healthcare and food preparation facilities, infection rates continue to climb.

In a fitness center, there are many contaminated surfaces of which a patron must be aware.  Door knobs, showers, equipment padding, and equipment handles all rank among the most highly contaminated surfaces.  A staggering 28% of gym surfaces are covered with pathogenic bacteria—the kind of bugs that can make you sick. The knurled grip on dumbbells and barbells as well as the fine cracks in upholstery provide an ideal breeding ground for bacteria because these imperfections trap sloughed-off skill cells and sweat, providing a perfect stew of moisture and nutrients.

So what can you do to prevent catching something nasty in your gym? Here are a few tips:

Sanitize equipment with a broad-spectrum, hospital-grade disinfectant before and after use; spray or wipes should ideally be easily available at the gym.

Wash your hands frequently!

Eighty percent of infections are spread by touch, and nearly 60% begin as skin infections. First, dispense a paper towel.   Use liquid antibacterial soap while washing vigorously for a minimum of 15 seconds, especially the oft-neglected backs of your hands and in between your fingers. Dry with the paper towel and use the towel to turn off the spigot.

Eat healthy.

Citrus fruits contain vitamin C which may bolster the immune system but also preserves the integrity of the skin to keep invaders out.  Adequate protein, especially the amino acid glutamine, fuels the white blood cells that attack the invaders.  Avoid rapid weight loss (i.e., crash diets) because under-nutrition compromises the immune system and leaves one more susceptible to infection.

Wear protection.

If coming into contact with upholstery, make sure your bare skin doesn’t contact the surface.  Wear garments that cover adequately, or use a towel as an interface between your skin and the equipment.  If you happen to be sporting a cut or a scrape, be certain that it is covered by clothing or bandage since your primary line of defense—your skin—has been breached.


None of the aforementioned recommendations is new.  Unfortunately, cleaning is a temporary solution because surfaces are quickly re-contaminated.  This leads us to a new breakthro

ugh that is making its way into gyms.  That breakthrough has been a very long time coming. There is a metal that 2500 years ago Hippocrates and his contemporaries recognized as having healing properties and was therefore an ingredient in ointments.  The Aztecs were even known to have gargled with a solution containing this metal to cure sore throats.  Furthermore, primitive people recognized that river water contained in vessels made of this metal did not make them sick, whereas water stored in earthen vessels caused illness.  Fast-forward to the accidental rediscovery of these properties centuries later. In 1983, a study of germs on hospital doorknobs revealed that bacteria could not grow on handles containing this metal.

So what is this mystery metal?  Any guesses? Penny for your thoughts? Astonishingly, it’s the quite common metal copper. Given the rise in antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections, the U.S. Department of Defense and the Environmental Protection Agency have combined efforts to exploit the natural disinfecting properties of copper.  Stainless steel, which is abundant in hospitals and industrial kitchens, can harbor bacteria for 4-7 months—or longer.  In sharp contrast, bacteria can live on a copper surface for only 15 minutes! And, as the copper tarnishes, it surprisingly becomes even more effective.

All this means that in the next few years, you will likely see an influx of copper surfaces in hospitals, kitchens, and, yes, gyms.  In fact, one fitness company has begun producing copper-handled fitness equipment, which could greatly reduce disease transmission in gyms.  For those of us with ties to the fitness industry (or anyone who frequents a gym), this means access to exercise tools that sanitize themselves. It’s like closing the gym at night, and having brand-new implements the next morning! But, until we have reached this copper-colored horizon and the metal meets the microbes, it’s best to use the good-hygiene practices above.

About the author: Greg Popovich is an Associate Professor of Exercise Science and holds advanced degrees in Exercise Physiology, Nutrition, and Physical Therapy.

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