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Germ warfare at the gym

What should you do to avoid getting sick at the gym? And can exercise help you build a bigger butt? Smart Fitness answers your queries.
Chick-fil-A, Joshua Figaretti, Jennifer Cummins
Besides the gross-out factor, slimy gym equipment can harbor bacteria and viruses.Ric Feld / AP

What should you do to avoid getting sick at the gym? And can exercise help you build a bigger butt? Smart Fitness answers your queries. Have an exercise question? To e-mail us, . We’ll post select answers in future columns.

Q: I think I've been getting sick lately from my health club. What is recommended regarding gym cleanliness and hygiene?

A: Any time people are in close quarters, there’s an elevated risk of contracting cold and flu viruses if someone nearby sneezes or coughs and you breathe in a virus.

You also can pick up a bug if an infected person at the gym wipes his mouth or nose, touches the treadmill or bench press, and then you touch the equipment and touch your mouth or eyes, explains Dr. Bruce Hirsch, an infectious disease specialist at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, N.Y.

These bug are easily spread. And we’re heading into peak cold and flu season, so with more viruses circulating, there’s an even greater chance you could pick something up at the gym (or the bus or shopping mall or busy restaurant).

The solution isn't to skip your workouts, but you should be extra-vigilant about hygiene.

The best way to protect yourself, says Hirsch, is to make sure you wash your hands before you touch your face. Some gyms now provide alcohol-gel dispensers that you can use to kill germs on contact after you touch equipment. If your gym doesn't have them, you could — at the risk of looking like a clean freak — bring a small bottle of your own.

Also be sure to wipe down the equipment before and after you use it. Many gyms make available antiseptic spray bottles and paper towels so you can steer clear of other people's slimy sweat. If your gym doesn't offer them, speak to the management about it.

Viruses aren't the only concern. A more dangerous, though much less common, threat is a bacterium called methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, notes Hirsch. MRSA can lead to an aggressive skin infection that may cause boils, redness, swelling and discomfort, and doctors worry about it because it continues to mutate and doesn't respond to certain antibiotics.

"The new strain tends to be more toxic, to cause larger infections," says Hirsch. "Instead of a boil it causes an abscess."

MRSA and other types of staph infections can be contracted by touching equipment and then touching a scratch or other skin opening — providing you with another good reason to clean grimy machines before you use them.

Exercise mats, including yoga mats, also can spread germs, so wash them down, too. Better yet, bring your own.

Don't let your guard down after your workout either, says Jane Andersen, a podiatrist in Chapel Hill, N.C., and a spokesperson for the American Podiatric Medical Association.

Warm, wet locker rooms are hot beds for microbes. Showers, in particular, "are notorious for carrying lots of germs like fungi that can cause athlete's foot," she says.

Other foot hazards: bacteria that could infect an open wound and viruses that cause plantar warts.

So get some flip-flops, pack them in your gym bag, wear them in the locker room and then take them home and let them dry out before using them again.

Also, if you use the sauna, be sure to sit on a towel. Otherwise, you could get a rash in a most inconvenient place.

Q: I've read so much about how to lose weight in the backside, but nothing on how to GAIN it. I have no butt — and I'd really like one. Can you help me out?

A: Genes play a role in whether your butt is flat, bubble-shaped or something in between, notes Jarrod Jordan, a personal trainer at the Chelsea Piers Sports Center in New York City.

So someone with "no butt" probably won't be able to get overly bootylicious, but you can still beef up your backside if you work at it, he says.

The key: squats, squats and more squats.

To do a squat, stand with your feet hip-width apart and then sit back as if you are going to sit down in a chair. Keep your weight on your heels and squeeze your buttocks on the way down and back up.

Begin by doing three sets of 12 repetitions with no weights, Jordan recommends. Then after a few weeks, kick things up by using either hand-held dumbbells or a barbell across the shoulders.

Start by doing 12 repetitions at a weight that is 60 percent of your one-repetition maximum. Then do 10 repetitions at 70 percent, eight repetitions at 80 percent and six repetitions at 90 percent. Do these every two to three days.

Be careful with the barbell approach. You don't want to lift so much that you can't manage the weight and risk injury. Have a spotter on hand to keep watch.

Smart Fitness appears every other Tuesday.