Fighting germs at the gym

It's cold and flu season. People are using tissues to turn doorknobs and staying away from crowds. A lot more hand washing is going on.

But do you think you can pick up a bug at your gym?

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.

You can avoid touching doorknobs with your bare hands, but what about the contamination of the 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.

The flu is not the only contagious illness going around. Even if you've been vaccinated, you may be vulnerable to another type of bug.

Start taking precautions now to protect yourself at the gym.

First, mix up a solution of half isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol) and water in a spray bottle. Put this 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 and then wipe it dry with a paper towel. Put the used towel in the plastic bag.

At the end of your workout, though it's a violation of the green ethic, throw away the bag of used paper towels. Wash your hands before leaving and then use hand lotion to keep them moisturized. Frequently washing your hands can dry and flake the skin, causing minute cracks that are perfect openings for stray bacteria or viruses to enter your body.

If using a spray bottle before every new exercise seems too much trouble, the other way to protect yourself is by wearing rubber gloves. But these should be the thick dishwashing 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 may interfere with your grip and they must be removed before you touch any mucous membrane. That includes the eyes, lips and 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.

When it comes to 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. Put on gloves before grabbing a step or a mat.

These precautions may be inconveniently time consuming, even embarrassing to do. But accepting the inconvenience is a whole lot better than lying in bed, sick as a dog, because you picked up a bug at your gym.