It's always a good idea to wash your hands after using shared weights and mats at your local gym, if only to rinse away the previous person's sweat. But since it might be possible to catch the flu from gym equipment, you'll want to take a little extra care when stopping by. And this is especially true during the colder months, when the virus is at its peak.
The gym is one of many places where you might come in contact with the virus, and it can make you feel pretty bad as a result. "The cold and flu are caused by distinct viruses and the flu is a more serious infection," Amesh A. Adalja, MD, FIDSA, FACP, FACEP, a board-certified infectious disease physician, tells Bustle. "Colds usually cause cough and congestion but rarely are disabling. Influenza causes fevers, chills, and body aches as well as cough and congestion."
Most people recover from the common cold in a week to 10 days, and even though you'll feel super sick, a cold is typically harmless. The flu, on the other hand, can be much more dangerous, Adalja says. The symptoms are more intense and, for some folks — like those with weakened immune systems — it can lead to complications. So being aware of how and where you might catch it is key.
As with any other public space, going to the gym during flu season might increase your risk of getting sick. "You can acquire the flu virus from touching a surface where the virus may be located after a sneeze or a cough from someone with influenza," Adalja says. And that can happen when you reach for the free weights or unfurl a yoga mat, since the virus can live outside the body for up to two days.
"The time that the virus remains viable on surfaces varies based upon environmental conditions," Adalja says, "[but it] can last up to 48 hours under optimal conditions." If your fellow gym goers are contagious, those germs may still be lurking on the equipment by the time you begin your workout. And all it takes is one quick hand wipe to your nose or eyes to become infected.
How contagious someone is can also play a role. "While people with the flu typically become contagious beginning one day before they actually have symptoms — and remain contagious up to five to seven days after becoming sick — people with flu are typically most contagious in the first three to four days after their illness begins," Scott Kaiser, MD, a board-certified family physician and geriatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center, tells Bustle. While they might not workout mid-flu, there's still plenty of time for folks to mosey on into the gym before they even start feeling run down, and leave a few germs behind.
Of course, it's also possible to inhale the flu virus through droplets in the air, Kaiser says, so sometimes catching the flu doesn't even involve touching a germ-y surface, but walking through an invisible sneeze cloud. And since that can, again, happen anywhere, avoiding the flu isn't so much about not going out or not touching shared items, like gym equipment, but taking good care of yourself.
Doing what you can to boost your immune system is always a good idea, including eating nutritious foods, drinking plenty of fluids, and getting enough sleep. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also recommends washing your hands after touching communal surfaces — whether that's at the gym, or anywhere else — as well as avoiding touching your eyes, nose, and mouth, since that's how the virus spreads. You should also consider getting a flu shot, Adalja says, as that's the best way to protect yourself. Do these things and you can still hit up the gym, even during flu season.
Amesh A. Adalja, MD, FIDSA, FACP, FACEP, board-certified infectious disease physician
Scott Kaiser, MD, board-certified family physician and geriatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center