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Gym Flu

Health clubs can be germ havens. Find out what you can do to protect yourself from viruses and other contagious infections.

Gym flu? Gesundheit.

If someone has a common cold, it's common courtesy that he work out at home. Any crowded communal space is a giant petri dish for germs, especially the cold-causing rhinovirus. At gyms, factor in dozens of shared surfaces, damp locker rooms, and towels that stand up on their own-and the place you visit for optimal health may send you to bed for a week.

The main culprit is the common sneeze, a projectile that launches 100,000 infectious particles at an initial velocity of 200 miles an hour. "Put your hand to your mouth when you sneeze, and you've got a handful of virus," says Chuck Gerba, Ph.D., a microbiologist at the University of Arizona. "Some of them survive for days on surfaces."

Bacteria and viruses play hopscotch on barbells, dumbbells and weight plates. Do 12 reps, touch your finger to your eye, and you've got a cold. "Our studies show that a person in a room with a cold coats 30 percent of the room's surfaces with viruses," says Gerba. "You literally pick up colds on your fingers." The most effective germ spreaders? Bicycle and stairclimber grips.

A gym's wet areas can also be rife with virus. "Taps, sinks and water fountains are some of the most heavily contaminated sites," says Gerba. Doorknobs leading out of locker rooms are comparatively clean, since most people wash their hands before leaving, but knobs leading in have tenfold the contamination.

Wiping down equipment between sets helps, although Gerba says that germs and viruses can simply be spread around-especially if you don't know the condition of the towel being used. A better bet is isinfectant wipes or sprays.

Meanwhile, avoid touching your fingers to your face. And wash your hands with hot soap and water frequently and thoroughly during cold and flu season. Check with your gym's management if you suspect regular cleaning of equipment, locker areas, showers or pools has fallen off. 

Don't forget your flip-flops when walking in locker rooms; they'll help protect you from fungal infections that cause athlete's foot. Finally, know that your gym bag is prime territory for a germ rave. Get one that's machine washable-and then wash it regularly. Remove damp towels and sweaty clothes each night. In more ways than one, you'll breathe easier.

Working out when Sick

If, despite your best intentions, you get gored by a rhinovirus, working out while you're sick is unlikely to speed your course of recovery. Throw in the gym towel if you're burning up. "Studies show that working out with a fever causes more relapses and can worsen symptoms," says David Nieman, Ph.D., professor of health and exercise science at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C. "If it's a head cold, moderate exercise is fine if it makes you feel better."

Some runners swear that a five-mile jog clears their clogged sinus passages. Their theory is based on the release of epinephrine, a supposed natural decongestant. "That's actually not true, and an overflooding of epinephrine can lead to negative immune changes," Nieman says. "In animal tests, it leads to severe consequences if the body's already weakened."

When weathering a cold or flu, time is your best ally: Write off about a week for a cold and two weeks for the flu. The latter is distinguished by fever, fatigue, and extra aches and pains.

When symptoms start, pare your schedule. If sniffles are severe, take a day or two off to rest. Get extra sleep and drink more fluids to moisten mucous membranes, which are the body's first line of defense against virus. Should your cold descend to your lungs, you may be at risk for bronchitis or pneumonia, so see your doctor.

There are hundreds of prescription, over-the-counter and folk treatments for colds and flu. None of them will cure you, but some of the following can shorten or lessen your misery. 

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