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Germs at the gym

The big media scare story of the moment is the swine flu. People are using tissues to turn doorknobs and staying away from crowds. A lot more hand washing is going on.

But can you get the swine flu from your gym? The answer is yes. Just as in the office or at the mall, if you are infected and touch your mouth or nose, then touch a surface, the next person to touch it might catch the bug.

Think about that nasty dumbbell that's been gripped by who knows how many sweaty hands. Imagine how often the pin for a machine-weight stack has been pinched between someone's thumb and forefinger; the same two digits that they used to catch a cough or wipe a nose.

You might avoid touching doorknobs with your bare hands, but what about the contaminated pull-down bar on the lat machine? Worse, the gym is a place where people sweat a lot and breathe hard. One infected person in a crowded aerobics class can do a lot of damage.

Even if you have already received the H1N1 flu vaccine, the flu is not the only contagious illness going around. In this late transition season, between the dregs of autumn and the cold weather of winter, everyone is more susceptible to a cold or other virus.

Jim Kelsey, spokesman for the Central Kentucky YMCA, said all branches have made extra hand sanitizer available, and signs have been posted to remind people that flu season is here. There has been no noticeable dip in attendance because of the flu, he said.

And just as gyms are taking precautions, gym-goers should, too.

Here's one suggestion: Mix a solution of half isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol) and water in a spray bottle. Put it in a small backpack with a roll of paper towels and a plastic bag. Before using any free weight or machine, spray the surface you will be touching with a good shot of the alcohol mixture. Wait at least 30 seconds, then wipe it dry with a paper towel. Put the used towel in the plastic bag.

You also can use antibacterial wipes or a bleach solution. A mix of 3 tablespoons of bleach to one quart of water in a spray bottle can be used to disinfect hard non-porous surfaces.

Kevin Hall, spokesman for the Lexington-Fayette County Health Department, said a bleach solution is probably more effective, but it does have an odor.

At the end of your workout, throw away the bag of used paper towels. Wash your hands before leaving, then use hand lotion to keep them moisturized. Frequent hand-washing can make hands dry and flaky, causing minute cracks that are perfect openings for bacteria or viruses.

If using a spray bottle before every new exercise seems like too much trouble, the other way to protect yourself is by wearing rubber gloves. They should be the thick dish-washing kind, not thin latex gloves, which can be easily torn or shredded in the rugged environs of the gym. The two things to remember when wearing rubber gloves while working out is that they might interfere with your grip and that they must be removed before you touch any mucous membrane. That includes the eyes, the lips and the inside of the nose. These membranes are totally porous, and the briefest of touches will inoculate you with any cold or flu virus that happens to be on the fingers of the glove. It's a hard habit to learn — never touch your face with an unwashed hand — but it's easier to remember to remove a glove before wiping your mouth or scratching your nose.

For fitness classes, spray the alcohol mixture on the handlebars of your spin bike. Stand in the back of the room for an aerobics class, so all that heavily breathed air goes forward, away from you.

Also, put on gloves before grabbing a step or a mat.

Anytime you stay away from the "action" and large groups of people, you effectively decrease your risk of exposure, said Hall of the Fayette Health Department.

These precautions might be time-consuming, even embarrassing. But accepting the inconvenience is a whole lot better than lying sick in bed because you picked up a bug at the gym.