Hidden dangers in health clubs

Last updated: December 2010

Joining a health club can make it easier and more fun to exercise. But gyms can also present safety problems. Bacteria in poorly maintained pools can spread disease. Antibiotic-resistant staph infections can be picked up in crowded locker rooms and from heavily used exercise equipment. You can be injured or even suffer an exercise-related heart problem. Here's how to minimize those risks.

Staph infections, including those caused by methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) bacteria, can spread through shared gym equipment, mats, and towels. Infections tend to occur near a cut or scrape, or on certain body parts (the armpits, buttocks, groin, and neck). They start off looking like a large pimple but can swell, become painful, and produce pus. If they spread to your bloodstream, it can be life-threatening. Many clear up on their own, but seek medical attention if a fever develops or if the area becomes enlarged, red, tender, or warm.

Prevention. Use the alcohol spray or wipes most gyms provide to wipe off equipment before and after use. Place a clean towel over mats used for doing sit-ups, stretching, or yoga. Don't share towels with others. Wash your hands frequently with soap and water, or use an alcohol-based sanitizer. Shower after working out. If you have a cut or scrape, keep it covered with a clean adhesive bandage and don't use hot tubs or whirlpools.

Poorly maintained swimming pools are common, allowing bacteria and viruses to cause outbreaks of gastrointestinal illness. Inspections at 3,666 health clubs in 13 states found serious lapses requiring the immediate closing of 10 percent of the pools, according to a May 2010 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Improperly maintained circulation and filtering systems and inadequate disinfection were among the most common problems.

Prevention. To protect others, shower with soap before swimming and wash your hands after using the toilet or changing a baby's diaper. Don't use the pool if the water has a strong chemical smell or appears cloudy. Pool water should have little odor and be clear enough that you can easily see the bottom. Ask employees about chlorine and pH levels, which should be checked at least twice a day, and the latest pool inspection score. Or use do-it-yourself test strips, available at many home improvement stores. Chlorine should be in the range of 1 to 3 parts per million (4 to 6 ppm for hot tubs), and pH should be in the range of 7.2 to 7.8.

Weight-room injuries requiring medical attention have increased by 50 percent since 1990, and the largest increase has been among people 45 and older.

Prevention. Warm up with a few minutes of jogging, calisthenics, or light and easy lifts. Use resistance machines or elastic bands rather than free weights. Keep the weight or resistance level light enough that you can do 15 repetitions. Do them slowly, taking about 2 seconds to lift and 4 seconds to lower. You should be able to stop the weight at any point in the movement. Don't hold your breath; that can cause fainting or a spike in blood pressure. Exhale during the lifting or pushing phase and inhale when lowering.

Exercise gradually builds protection against heart disease. But if you're not in good shape a vigorous workout can temporarily increase the risk of heart attack, especially if you're ill. A 2009 study found that a recent episode of fatigue or flu was associated with an increase in exercise-related cardiac events.

Prevention. Talk with your doctor before starting to work out if you have heart disease, multiple cardiac risk factors, or you're middle-aged or older and have been sedentary. If you have a cold or the flu or feel fatigued, take a temporary break from exercising or scale back your workouts. Make sure that your club has at least one automatic external defibrillator, which can save your life if you suffer cardiac arrest. Staff members should be trained in its use as well as in cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Consider learning CPR, too, so you can help others during emergencies.

Americans suffer more than 40,000 eye injuries a year during recreational activities. Racquetball, squash, and tennis are leading causes of sports-related eye injuries among people between 25 and 65. Nearly all could be prevented if people wore adequate eye protection.

Prevention. People engaged in high-risk activities should wear protective eyewear with 3-mm polycarbonate lenses and an impact-resistant sports frame meeting the ASTM F803-01 standard. If you regularly wear glasses, you should get a prescription pair of sports glasses that meet those criteria.

This article first appeared in the November 2010 issue of Consumer Reports on Health.

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