Whether you’re going to the gym to lose weight, improve your health numbers or just clear your head, the last thing you’re looking to get out of your workout is an illness or an injury. Choosing a gym that is kept clean with well-maintained equipment is a good first step to protecting yourself, and there are plenty of things you can do once you’re there to avoid germs and workout safely.
Steer Clear of Germs
Wash your hands. Moderate exercise can be a boon to your immune system. But that doesn’t give you license to cut corners when it comes to preventative hygiene. It may seem silly to wash up before getting sweaty (after all, you’re not making a sandwich on the treadmill!), but all that moisture you’ll be producing provides a perfect breeding ground for any bacteria that has already taken up residence on your body. Plus, you might be surprised at how much you touch your face while you work out—pushing your hair out of the way, or wiping the sweat from your forehead—each time offering up a pathway for pathogens into your body.
Wipe down your equipment first. Don’t assume the last person to use it did so—or did so effectively. Most gym these days have paper towels and sanitizing spray or wipes throughout the workout area. Use them before and after you use the cardio machines or lay down on a mat or bench. (Even better, bring your own mat from home, as the soft cushy material can harbor bacteria.)
Use your shower shoes. Before you step your sweaty feet where someone else’s have been, slip on flip-flops or other waterproof shoes. Wear them throughout the locker room, pool and shower areas to avoid picking up athlete’s foot or toenail fungus. You can further amp up your protection against foot fungus by wearing clean, sweat-wicking socks during your workout and washing and drying your feet thoroughly afterwards.
Make Your Workout Safe and Injury-Free
Warm up before your workout. To stretch, or not to stretch. Researchers and exercise pros have been back and forth on the issue for years. The truth is, warming up isn’t about touching your toes; it’s about gradually increasing your range of motion and upping the blood flow throughout your body so your muscles—as well as your joints and the tissue that connects them—are warm and malleable, rather than stiff and prone to injury. Whether you’re headed for weights or cardio, begin by gently moving the parts of your body you’ll be working in your session for a few minutes.
Keep your eyes on the treadmill. Gym injuries spiked 45 percent from 2007 and 2010, with treadmills as the leading culprit, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. It’s tempting to seek out distractions from the monotony of walking or running in place, but it’s important to pay attention to your footing. Texting or emailing on a smartphone while using a treadmill can be a recipe for disaster, and even reading a magazine can cause you to lose your balance. A better option: stick to the wall-mounted TV or display screen on the machine, and continuously cycle your vision back to the treadmill to check your position.
Watch your speed. A great cardio machine workout is not built on speed alone. In fact, when you crank up your pace on an elliptical machine, the machine’s momentum can take over and you may lose control. For a better workout, whatever machine you choose, focus on the resistance or incline buttons. You’ll build more muscle strength while giving your heart and lungs a workout.
Talk to the trainers. Whether you’ve been exercising for years or you’re a novice, don’t be afraid to ask questions—especially when you’re trying a new machine or exercise. The staff and trainers at any reputable gym should be able to instruct you on safe form, or at least to refer you to somebody who can. However, don’t assume a person is qualified just because she is wearing a “staff” t-shirt. Ask about fitness credentials such as those granted by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), American Council on Exercise (ACE), IDEA and National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA).