When Exercise IsnХt Healthy

Kyle Frey, a 21-year-old junior from Drexel University in Philadelphia, was one of his school's star wrestlers when something startling happened. One day, Frey, who worked out with his team almost daily, noticed a small lesion--much like a pimple--developing on his arm; while it seemed slightly unusual, he thought little of it at the time.

A few days later, however, after a match with a competing team, Frey noticed that the pimple had now grown considerably, and was beginning to hurt. By morning, the pimple had grown as large as a golf ball and was very painful.

Frey's trainer rushed him to the emergency room, where doctors discovered an infection known as MRSA--methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus--a potentially deadly disease usually requiring treatment with several antibiotics in large quantities.

Frey was released after a five-day hospital stay, healthy but quite curious about where he had acquired the disease. His doctors believed he might have caught it from another wrestler--someone who had the disease and wasn't aware of it. Or, more likely, he had contracted it from a contaminated wrestling mat and/or gym equipment, or even from surfaces such as benches in the locker room.

While this particular occurrence did not happen in a park or recreational facility, MRSA is now showing up frequently in exercise facilities and gyms across the country; in fact, MRSA infections are now a risk literally anywhere people go to exercise and stay in shape.

A Surprisingly Common Problem

While many exercise participants have experienced inconveniences such as athlete's foot--a common foot infection caused by a fungus--there are simple, over-the-counter treatments readily available for such problems.

However, according to a position paper just released by the National Athletic Trainers Association, “Skin infections, along with other infectious diseases, are extremely common” among people who use gym facilities. In fact, the paper further states, skin infections lead to more than half of all the outbreaks of infectious diseases occurring among participants in competitive sports.

“This is of concern for park and recreation facilities because with tight school budgets and limitations on sport activities--and even the actual closing of sports facilities--many school-age children are now turning to park and recreation facilities for exercise,” says John Richter, Technical Director for Kaivac, developers of the No-Touch Cleaning System.

“Prevention is key to minimizing the problem and, in all fairness, gym and locker-room users, young and old, can also do a lot themselves to stay healthy.”

Richter has several suggestions for both park and recreational facility managers and users that can help keep the areas and those who use them healthy:

• Managers should communicate with facility users regarding the problem. The more people that are aware that infections can be transmitted in gym and locker-room settings, the more careful and cautious they are likely to be.

• Facility users should follow proper hygiene. Gym users should either wash their hands after using gym equipment, or use disinfectant wipes, which many gyms are now providing. Gym equipment can be a breeding ground for serious infections.

• Visitors should always shower after exercising. Women tend not to shower after exercise, while men are more likely to do so. However, showering with antibacterial soap--a must-have in any park and recreation facility--can wash away germs and bacteria before they have the opportunity to develop into a disease or infection.

• Users should avoid sharing personal items such as razors, towels or soaps. Sharing such items can lead to the spread of infectious illnesses.

• Managers should make sure soap dispensers are kept clean. Consider using soap dispensers that are refilled with soap cartridges rather than systems that have soap poured into them; studies report that the former types of dispensers are more sanitary.

• Visitors should bring two sets of clothes. Gym clothes should be worn only at the gym and washed after each workout; street clothes should be worn after taking a shower. This limits the possibility that germs and bacteria that may have gathered on gym clothes might be transmitted to the wearer or others.

What Else Can Be Done?

Prevention is the key in dealing with the spread of infectious diseases. Says Richter, “Park and rec managers must concentrate on one thing--cleaning--in two key places: exercise areas and showers and locker rooms.”

As mentioned earlier, exercise equipment can become contaminated during the course of the day. Yet in the past, most gyms were cleaned only at the end of the day, like other facilities.

“However, this has not proven adequate in gyms because of the way they are used and the number of people coming and going,” notes Richter.

Many private gyms now prefer a method best described as “continuous cleaning.” Sanitation professionals frequently mop floors; wipe down machines, mats, mirrors, sinks, counters and restroom fixtures; and perform other cleaning tasks throughout the day while the facility is open and in use.

“This type of cleaning can sometimes prove disruptive in an office-type situation, but surprisingly, it can work very well in a gym or exercise-type facility,” says Richter.

However, more extensive cleaning--what Richter refers to as “hygienic cleaning”--is required in shower and locker rooms.

“This may also mean rethinking the way locker rooms have been cleaned for decades and adopting new methods, products and technologies,” he says. “We are dealing with public-health threats that simply were not much of an issue a decade ago, but which now call for [the use of] new and more effective tools and systems.”

His suggestions for hygienic cleaning include:

• Using EPA-registered disinfectants designed to kill a broad spectrum of germs and bacteria.

• Using microfiber cleaning cloths and mop heads, which have proven to be much more effective at cleaning floors and surfaces. Color-coded microfiber cloths allow users to designate a color for cleaning each type of surface--for example, only red cloths would be used to clean toilets, eliminating the risk of cross-contamination.

• Using microfiber "smart" towel cloths. These cloths are divided into eight quadrants, allowing users to use a fresh, clean quadrant for each surface they clean. This is another way to reduce the risk of cross-contamination.

• Using spray-and-vac cleaning equipment. Even with microfiber cloths--and certainly with conventional cleaning cloths and mop heads--cleaning tools can spread germs and bacteria from one surface to another. Spray-and-vac systems eliminate this problem. Similar to indoor pressure-washers, they effectively remove contaminants from surfaces, which are then vacuumed up or released down floor drains.

Cost Issues

As schools cut funding for athletics and fitness activities, many young people are now turning to park and recreation facilities to get their exercise and to engage in other sports. However, many park and recreation facilities are now facing the same economic problems that are hampering educational institutions. So the question arises: Can park and recreation facilities afford to adopt continuous-cleaning programs or more thorough, hygienic methods?

Richter says many facilities have faced this challenge by having existing staff members take over many cleaning tasks. As to the hygienic cleaning suggested for locker rooms, “Considerable savings can be realized by switching to spray-and-vac cleaning systems,” says Richter. “[This is because] studies indicate fixtures, restrooms and locker rooms can be cleaned in one-third the time using this equipment.”*

Matting Matters

Many locker rooms have mats placed in strategic areas. These also must be cleaned on a regular (daily) basis. If a mop and bucket are used, the mats should be cleaned first and then disinfected.

This is a two-step process unless the wording on the product clearly indicates it is a cleaner and disinfectant. Air-dry the mats so that both sides are thoroughly dry before placing them back on the floor.

An alternative method is to use the spray-and-vac system. Apply the chemical then spray the mats to rinse. A disinfectant may not be necessary with this method unless there are specific concerns about a public health threat in the facility. Pick up the mats and allow them to air-dry.

Robert Kravitz is a writer for the professional cleaning, healthcare, building, hospitality and education industries. He may be reached at info@alturasolutions.com

*Based on studies conducted by worldwide cleaning association ISSA, and published in its booklet The Official ISSA 554 Cleaning Times, updated October 2009.