Battling Bacteria

Learn how to keep your facility clean to protect your members—and your bottom line.

Bacteria. Germs. Superbugs. These are some of the countless terms for the hazardous micro-organisms that can be found in your business at any time. The fact is, any crowded communal space is a breeding ground for microbes. The club environment is at increased risk owing to the unavoidable dynamics, from dripping sweat to locker room moisture to the normal hygiene challenges associated with shared workout equipment (Meyer 2007). The good news is that you can do something about it.

Maintaining a pristine facility keeps not only your staff and members but also your club’s pocketbook in good health. Equally as important as location, membership fees and amenities, a clean environment is crucial to attracting and retaining members and keeping your business thriving.

The Danger Is Real

The threat of disease-causing bacteria in fitness facilities is escalating. Research indicates that typical gym equipment regularly carries germs such as Staphylococcus, Streptococcus viridans, diptheroids, E. coli and Candida (Shaver 2006). In addition to these germs, skin diseases—including athlete’s foot and human papillomavirus—are commonly found in health clubs (Coila 2004). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 80% of all infectious diseases are initiated through physical contact with other people or contaminated items (Blanton 2007). Furthermore, the CDC cites close physical contact and equipment sharing as reasons for outbreaks among professional and recreational athletes (Manning et al. 2005).

Most recently, an even bigger threat has been emerging in the fitness industry: methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). A bacterial infection that is resistant to normal antibiotic therapy, MRSA used to be confined to hospitals, prisons and poverty-stricken areas (CDC 2008). Today, outbreaks are spreading to the general population, and the local health club is a prime place for unchecked person-to-person MRSA transmission (Meyer 2007).

What these facts mean for you as a facility owner or manager is that an outbreak at your club would not only hurt the individuals affected but also result in significant losses of membership and revenue, as well as negative press. In severe cases, it could mean having the facility shut down by the department of health.

Let’s Step It Up

Most clubs have already taken admirable steps to reduce germs and related illnesses. “At our facilities we provide sanitizing stations and disposable paper towels to wipe off the equipment following use,” explains Damian Fisher, owner of Renaissance Fitness Training and co-owner of Gold’s Gym in both High Point and Greensboro, North Carolina. “We also provide hand-sanitizing stations throughout the gym and at the exits. Trainers and sales staff are encouraged to wash hands and/or sanitize between clients.”

In many facilities, members take advantage of hand sanitizers and are diligent about cleaning treadmill and stair climber grips and larger pieces of equipment. However, many people do not necessarily do the same with smaller items, including dumbbells and weight plates. Bacteria and viruses can survive on these surfaces as well as on large equipment (Foster 2002).

With the increasing health risks, much more needs to be done to protect members, staff and the club’s bottom line. Current practices for health club sanitation are commendable, yet they may no longer be enough. All facility managers must ask themselves what more they can do to assure their gyms are as sterile as possible.

What You Can Do Right Now

Take these nine steps to improve hygiene in your facility:

1. Power-wash locker rooms regularly.

2. Keep a significant supply of antiseptic ointment and bandages available to treat cuts or scrapes right away.

3. Inspect and clean equipment and locker rooms immediately before and after prime traffic periods each day.

4. Post signs encouraging members to wash hands regularly and not to share towels.

5. Require members to wear rubber shower shoes or flip-flops while in the locker room.

6. Offer antifungal powder in your locker rooms and encourage members to use it in their shoes.

7. Request that members and staff refrain from coming to the gym when they are sick.

8. Use bleach and hot water when cleaning club towels and dry them on the hottest setting.

9. Post signs warning members to refrain from using the sauna, hot tub or pool if they have open cuts or scrapes.

In addition to these facility-focused strategies, members can personally protect themselves by practicing good hand hygiene; covering open abrasions or cuts with clean, dry bandages; not sharing personal items, such as towels or razors; using a barrier between the skin and shared equipment; and wiping equipment surfaces before and after use (Shaver 2006).

What You Can Do With Additional Funds

If you are willing to make an investment and go above and beyond the basics, you can take additional steps to significantly improve the overall sanitation of your club.

First, consider replacing locker room equipment with hands-free equipment, such as sensor-monitored faucets, soap dispensers and hand driers. Another helpful tip: remodel locker rooms to include faucets, sinks and counters constructed with surfaces that kill bacteria. Alternatively, treat existing surfaces with an antimicrobial coating.

Some fitness facilities are now investing in antimicrobial flooring that suppresses the growth of bacteria, fungus, mold and other environmental germs (Fischbach 2007). Antimicrobial flooring options include rubber, sheet vinyl, carpet and wood. If replacing flooring is beyond the budget, seal present flooring with an antimicrobial coating.

Finally, install a commercial air-purifying system. Indoor air pollution is common in large, well-populated facilities and is responsible for causing and spreading illness. Installing an energy-efficient air purifier can aid in resolving this issue by sterilizing the air and creating a healthier environment. Select an air purifier with an ultraviolet germicidal lamp, which is optimal for reducing and eliminating germs such as mold, viruses, fungi and mold spores.

Who’s Making the Grade?

Unfortunately, not many clubs are hitting high standards. It is a challenge to find facilities that are going beyond hand sanitizers and equipment wipes. Perhaps you can be among the pioneers in this area and establish your facility’s reputation as a true “health” club.

One club in particular has done just that. Main Event Fitness and Nutrition in Marietta, Georgia, is proud of the steps it is taking to maintain an immaculate facility. For starters, the facility recently installed air decontamination technology by Philips® to optimize air quality. The system eliminates bacteria, viruses and other pathogens in the air circulated through the HVAC system. Second, the club implements regular dry-steam sterilization treatments on the exercise equipment and in the bathrooms. It has even gone above and beyond and implemented uniquely engineered lighting technology that has proven effective for light therapy purposes.

Health clubs are chock-full of people, which means they are chock-full of germs as well. Your members are coming to your facility to enhance their health—not damage it. Fortunately, implementing preventive maintenance procedures not only promotes retention and in the long run saves money; it also helps you maintain your competitive edge. Taking steps to make your facility as sanitary and healthy as possible keeps your members—and your budget—in great shape.

Resources

Don’t know where to start if you want to sanitize and disinfect your facility? Here are some resources for products that can help.

  • CleenFreek SportsHygiene (www.cleenfreek.com) offers a line of sporting goods designed to reduce the spread of germs in gyms and locker rooms.
  • Ozonelite (www.ozonelite.com) sells unique light bulbs that kill airborne bacteria, germs, fungi, mold and mildew.
  • GymWipes Antibacterial Towelettes (www.gymwipes.com), manufactured by 2XL Corporation, are premoistened, disposable, disinfecting wipes that have been developed to stop the spread of germs on health club surfaces.
  • Athletix Products (www.athletix products.com) offers effective cleaning and maintenance products such as corrosion inhibitors, equipment cleaners and odor neutralizers.
  • GOJO Industries Inc. (www.gojo.com) offers a wide variety of products and dispensers aimed at keeping skin healthy. Items include hand sanitizers, scrubs and soaps.
  • Multi-Sport (www.multi-sport.com), the sports and health club marketing division of Chemco Industrial Products Inc., sells a variety of maintenance and janitorial products.

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Valerie Applebaum, MPH, CHES

IDEA Author/Presenter
Valerie Applebaum, MPH, CHES, is a certified health education specialist with a master’s degree... more less
References
Blanton, R. 2007. Health experts warn of bacterial dangers. Danville Register & Bee (July 25).

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 2005. Fact sheet: Community-associated MRSA information for the public. www.cdc.gov/ncidod/ dhqp/ar_mrsa_ca_public.html; retrieved Feb. 28, 2008.

Coila, B. 2004. Gym germs: Why common diseases flourish in your gym and what you can do to avoid them. American Fitness (Nov.-Dec.).

Fischbach, A. 2007. Ground attack. Fitness Business Pro (July 1).

Foster, R. 2002. Gym flu: Is your gym a breeding ground for viruses and bacteria? Men’s Fitness (Jan.).

Manning, S., et al. 2005. Invasive group A streptococcal infection in high school football players, New York City, 2003. Emerging Infectious Diseases, 11 (1).

Meyer, M. 2007. MRSA outbreaks in health clubs. Ezine Articles.

Shaver, J. 2006. Clean up. Fitness Business Pro (Nov. 1).

May 2008

© 2008 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

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