This year's influenza season has been no joke. Schools, hospitals, workplaces — all are breeding grounds for the latest flu strains, as well as common colds, seasonal allergies, and various other nasty infections. You may not think about the gym being an area ripe for attack on your immune system, but think again. During the Winter months, the cold weather forces more people into the gym to work out than in the more temperate months. When people come inside, they bring their germs AND their poor hygiene with them. Sick people still go to work, and the fitness-obsessed refuse to let a little sniffle, or worse, a smidge of a stomach virus from keeping them away from their treadmill time. And we can't control their decision making process, flawed as it is. But we can make our own smart choices to diminish our chances of taking home a doggie bag of infection (in addition to sweaty workout clothes). Here are five suggestions to help you ward off illness and keep your fitness train rolling down the tracks.
Prep Your System
When in cold and flu season, consider increasing your intake of antioxidants, either through supplements or a well-balanced diet. You are only as strong as your weakest link, so make sure you are getting enough vitamins and minerals to ensure your system is ready to fight off germ invaders when they strike. And they will. Compromised wellness due to fatigue, poor fueling, and nutrient deficiency can effect whether you get sick and how long it takes to get better. So eat up, and eat well, my friends.
Wipes Are Your Friend
Everyone knows the location of the giant bins of sanitizing wipes in their gym. Trainers get a sinking feeling when they realize the bin is empty at the end of a class, when their attendees circle around the vacant vessel with looks of horror and disappointment on their faces. They don't want to leave without cleaning up, but their hands are tied by a logistical problem. Keep that in mind before you hop on a machine or utilize any other communal workout equipment. YOU may wipe religiously after you are done, but do you know for a fact that everyone else does? Maybe the wipes ran out and they didn't say anything. Take the time to wipe down your machines, weights, or mats before you use them (as well as after). AND LET IT DRY!!! The evaporation time allows the alcohol and other chemicals to work, otherwise you are just coating yourself in wipe fluid AND germs. You can wait the extra 30 seconds.
The biggest germ trap in your gym is not the treadmill that some sweaty guy with a cough just vacated. It's the water fountain he hits next. So do yourself a favor, and bring your own water. And refill it from a source free of contact from people's mouths. While you are at it, bring your own mat. As much as a gym tries to stay on top of sanitizing, the mats are usually one of the last items to get hit with the spray. The only items worse off are the free weights. You don't have to turn into volunteer HazMat staff and wipe down every piece of equipment that you want to use, but make sure you wash your hands immediately after handling communal equipment, even if you wiped it down first. If your gym provides towels and you are comfortable using them, go ahead, but bringing your own guarantees the level of cleanliness. In cold and flu season, your own towels may give you that extra edge you need to slide through unscathed.
This may seem obvious, but honestly, do you realize how often you touch your face during the day? The eyes, nose, and mouth are the primary entry points of germs into your body. Now think about being sweaty, and wiping your face with a towel or your hands. Repeatedly. And putting the towel down or resting your hands back on a machine/weight/floor/etc. Not that these actions are the equivalent of licking the treadmill, but they are pretty darn close. When you are in the height of flu season, be extra attentive of your hands — where they go and how often you are cleaning them. Come up with a multi-towel barrier system: one on the machine or bench and one on top of it, just for your face. If your gym only gives you one towel (or no towels), invest in a few cheap hand towels that you can take home and wash in hot water.
Know When to Say When
Only you can prevent forest fires AND the spread of your own germs during peak illness season. That means if you are rocking a fever, a cough that produces phlegm in a variety of green shades, or you're battling vomiting or diarrhea, STAY HOME. I get it, I am a workout addict too. But remember how annoying it is when someone who is obviously ill is hacking away in the cubicle next to you at work? Or blowing nasty snot rockets into their GYM TOWEL on the elliptical next to you? Don't be that person. There are tons of at-home workouts that you can do to get your fix without spreading your particular strain of nasty around.
And here's a wacky suggestion: consider staying home to REST. Allowing your body time and the extra energy to fight off whatever's attacking your system will get you back to health quicker. Sleep, recovery, and proper nutrition during an illness are always the right decisions. Staying home until you aren't contagious should be a no brainer. If you find yourself wondering if you can make it work though, take a look in the mirror and decide whether you'd want to work out next to yourself. If the answer is no, stay home, the gym isn't going anywhere. And you won't lose fitness if you take a day or two off. Promise. So stay healthy, be smart, and for heaven's sake, wash your hands!