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What’s the Best Way for a Sweaty Guy Like Me to Wipe Up After Himself at the Gym?

A towel? Pre-moistened wipes? Disinfectant spray? A power-washer?

Once something has been a professional responsibility (or liability) for you, it’s unlikely to ever escape your notice again. I had my conception of acceptable gym etiquette hardwired into me during my two separate stints as a Bally Total Fitness locker-room attendant. Members of the club were admonished to clean up after themselves, dispose of their own trash, rerack their own weights and wipe down the gym equipment after they’d concluded their use of it. But if they failed to do so, who had to come to the rescue with rubber gloves, a squeegee, a spray bottle and a University of Michigan diploma to clean up after them? This guy.

The point being, because of my minimum-wage experiences with other people’s sweat, I’m particularly attuned to the presence of disinfectant sprays, pre-moistened wipes, communal cleanup rags and every other variety of hygienic implement provided by health clubs for the sake of post-workout sanitation. However, now I’m even more hyper sensitive — especially while living in a pandemic-ridden atmosphere — to the frequency (or lack thereof) with which my fellow gym attendees spray down and sop up the trails of salty, sweaty messes they leave behind as they wander from sauna to steam room, and then from yoga mat to weight bench.

What’s the big deal? It’s just sweat.

It’s just sweat? When I visit you in the hospital, am I allowed to say that it’s just the flu, just MRSA or just hepatitis B? Because sweat can either be a direct source or a carrier of several different infections that no one wants any part of. 

Some illnesses are transmitted naturally through sweat. Others simply engage with sweat for its usefulness as a third-party provider of shipment and distribution. If someone coughs into lingering sweat, and then that sweat is rubbed off onto another person, that transaction may be sufficient to circulate sicknesses in realms they otherwise may never have reached.

I’m not implying that the odds are high that you’re going to contract Ebola from the sweat of the crossfitter who was flailing away on the pull-up bar before you got there, but the simple fact that Ebola can be transmitted through sweat should leave you sufficiently annoyed to give that bar a precautionary wipe down before you latch onto it.

Point taken. But can’t I just use my own towel?

If the most problematic component to the perspiration was purely its moisture, using your own towel might be of some value. Certainly, it does the trick in terms of wiping the troublesome sweat droplets off of your iPhone while you text your friends in between treadmill sprint sets. 

However, let’s envision a scenario where you schlep your initially pristine towel from station to station, wicking away the sweat of every individual who preceded you in the process. On your last stop, you finally get to the rowing machine, which you also wipe the sweat from before you park your posterior on it, only to exhaustedly bury your face in that very same towel as soon as you’re done and let it absorb your fresh batch of hard-won perspiration. That filth-addled rag now contains the musty training residue of about 30 different people. How much do you want to wager that none of them are presently struggling with anything contagious?

Understood. Okay, the towel is out. So how should I go about wiping down my training equipment?

Very patiently. 

Here’s the thing: Not all cleaning products are created equally. The terms “clean,” “sanitize” and “disinfect” all have distinct meanings that you should take into consideration when you’re spraying down and then wiping off any piece of training equipment.

Cleaning is the simplest term to understand, and it occurs when all superficial or material residue has been removed from a scene. A scene can’t be declared as sanitized or disinfected unless it’s been cleaned first. Think of it this way: If a rat crawled into the middle of the fitness studio and died, and a University of Michigan graduate came in wearing a mask and rubber gloves, sprayed down the entire studio and left the dead rat on the floor, you wouldn’t consider it clean, right?

Sanitization and disinfection are a little more technical, but I’ll simplify the concepts for you. Only disinfectants are permitted to make legal claims about having the ability to kill viruses. Some sterilizers with disinfectant-like qualities have been authorized to make effectiveness claims relating to their usefulness in combating specific viruses, but general statements about virus-eliminating properties are forbidden for sanitizers. Even some disinfectants are banned from making specific claims about certain diseases of interest.

Either way, what you need to devote your attention to is the concept of contact time — also known as “kill time.” The EPA lists a kill time for every one of its approved disinfectants, and this clearly explains how long the disinfectant spray needs to physically linger on a surface before its user can be certain that all of the viruses on that surface have been killed. Some disinfectants may only take a few seconds to work their magic. For others, it might take up to 30 seconds or longer.

How will I know how long I should leave the disinfectant on the surface of whatever I’ve sprayed it on?

You probably won’t. Given the number of generic spray bottles allocated for public use at gyms and health clubs these days, you may have absolutely no clue about the solution inside of that bottle, what its virus-fighting capabilities are or how long you need to leave it on a surface before it can reasonably be expected to have killed any viruses at all.  

Your best bet is to spray the apparatus down, pull your phone out, check your messages, upload a photo of your flexed arms to Instagram so that your followers can fawn over your fitness progress and then finish wiping down the machine. The sooner you can work out a system for wiping down your equipment before and after you’ve used it, the safer and healthier you’ll be, and the more your fellow gym attendees will appreciate you. 

Please do whatever is necessary (and legal) to take your safety into your own hands, because there won’t always be an underemployed locker room attendant waiting to swoop in and protect you.