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How to Spot a Toxic Gym

By Cailyn Cox

After the holidays, gyms will see their memberships increase as people resolve to lose weight, gain strength and fitness and generally look and feel better.  And yet, some dangers may be lurking in the places we believe will help us to stroll down the road of longevity for years to come. So want to know How to Spot a Toxic Gym? Here are the top areas of potential harm to watch out for before you sign up for that new gym contract.

1. The Pool

Of course, swimming is a fantastic form of exercise. However, when chlorine, the chemical that is used to kill bacteria in the pools, is combined with sweat and even urine from swimmers, it forms a toxic by-product that can trigger asthma, rashes and red eyes in certain individuals. It can also produce coughing and wheezing.

Our advice? Find a pool that is decontaminated by ozone, saline or another more natural means.


2. The Shower

Most of us are aware we may catch plantar’s warts and other fungi on our feet from the shower room floor, so flip flops are a must when getting into the shower. But there’s another hazard lurking there: mould.

Let’s face it–most gym cleaners can’t be bothered to reach into the dark corners of the showers, and the consequence of constant humidity is mould.

Symptoms of even a bit of mould exposure include:

  • Nasal and sinus congestion, runny nose
  • Eye irritation, such as itchy, red, watery eyes
  • Respiratory problems, such as wheezing and difficulty breathing, chest tightness
  • Cough
  • Throat irritation
  • Skin irritation, such as a rash
  • Headache
  • Sneezing

Black mould is a serious health risk that can be toxic, leading to brain damage, and long-term exposure to mould can lead to hair loss, reproductive problems and even death.

Point out any visible mould to your gym manager and insist it be professionally cleaned immediately. To scared to speak up? Take pictures and send an email to the gym manager, threatening to call the health inspector if no action is taken. Seriously. Do it.

3. Cleaning Products

Most gyms aim to be clean, and usually have staff trailing after clients with spray bottles of products. In fact, many gyms ask clients themselves to use them after they finish with a cardio machine. But did you know recent studies have shown links between triclosan, a common ingredient in antibacterial soaps and cleaning products, and illnesses? These can include allergies, compromised immune systems, thyroid diseases and even harmful hormonal changes that can affect your weight and health.

What’s more, many gym managers use toxic disinfectants in the showers and changing rooms that often contain chemicals such as formaldehyde, phenol and glutaraldehyde. These common cleaning chemicals could seriously comprise your health and have been linked to headaches, allergies, asthma and in extreme cases, cancer.

It is therefore important to avoid gyms that use industrial anti-bacterial cleaning products—ask your gym manager to buy those that are EcoCert or Green Seal Certified instead.

bathroom cleaning

4. Other People’s Deodorants 

There are always a few people in the changing room who insist on misting themselves from head to toe with obnoxious body sprays and deodorants.

While most people don’t think twice about such activities, they really should– body sprays can contain hundreds of phthalate-loaded fragrance chemicals and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which can be extremely hazardous to your health and a range of health problems, including asthma, hormonal disruptions, and even cancer. Add dozens of spray deodorants to hairspray mist, and you’ve got a terribly toxic cloud in the change room!

If your gym is allowing body and hair sprays in the changing rooms, the indoor air may be dangerously polluted—more so than on a busy outdoor street. According to the World Health Organisation, indoor air pollution is responsible for more deaths worldwide than outdoor air in even the most contaminated cities—so make sure you make your concerns known to your gym manager.

5. Dirty Air Conditioning

When not properly maintained and cleaned, air conditioners can circulate outdoor and indoor pollution and mould spores found in showers and carpeting, all of which gymgoers will be inhaling profoundly.

Even when clean, they can transmit infectious respiratory viruses and mould spores into the atmosphere, which can result in health problems for people with weak immune systems.

Remember that when working out you need to be in a cool environment to stay comfortable, but what you may not realise is that this lower temperature also reduces the amount that you sweat and the cleansing effect of releasing toxins. Ensure your gym cleans its air conditioning filters regularly, and try to avoid working out directly under or in front of a unit.

sports sneaker

6. Electromagnetic fields (EMFs)

Electromagnetic fields in gyms are a serious issue: high levels of EMF radiation has been found in certain gyms because of the frequent use of electronic equipment such as mobile phones and other wireless devices, the proximity to power lines, cellphone towers and broadcast transmission towers, as well as, of course, the EMFs emitted from all the electrically-powered cardio equipment in the cardio rooms.

High exposure to EMFs can damage your memory, disrupt sleep and cause changes in genetics and possibly neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s—make sure your gym is well ventilated to avoid such issues.

 7. Street Pollution

Some gyms are located on busy streets. Whilst air conditioning systems can filter out some pollutants IF they are new, clean and effective, older systems will just circulate polluted outdoor air inside–even worse if the windows are open. You see cyclists wearing masks when they bike through traffic–if your gym is on a busy street, consider that you’re breathing in the same air those cyclists try to avoid.

8. Air Fresheners

Sometimes, if clients are particularly odorous, gym staff will walk about with an air spray to ‘freshen’ the air. Bad idea–just as with body sprays, almost all commercial air fresheners contain hundreds of phthalate-loaded fragrance chemicals and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which you inhale deeply as you work out.

The resulting indoor air pollution is a serious health risk: short term exposure to indoor air pollutants is linked to asthma, headaches, dizziness, fatigue, and eye/nose irritation, and long-term exposure is associated with respiratory diseases, heart disease, and cancer.

bathroom scales

9. Carpeting

Shockingly, some gyms are carpeted; why is beyond us. Most carpets are made from  petroleum byproducts such as nylon, acrylic, PVC and more. These substances, as well as the glue that binds the fibres to the carpeting base, give off toxic chemicals including volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and formaldehyde, which you breathe in deeply when working out. Synthetic materials like carpeting can create indoor air pollution that’s 2 to 5 times – and occasionally more than 100 times – higher than outdoor pollutant levels.

Additionally, in the gym, sweat, hair and cleaning products fall to the floor and linger in the fabric. Normal cleaning will do nothing to remove such toxins, as they typically migrate into the padding below. Gross. If your gym is carpeted, you may want to consider moving to one with more sanitary rubber or wood flooring.

10. Gym Mats

Most gym and yoga mats are made of PVC, or polyvinyl chloride, which is a known carcinogen. Among the most common additives to gym mat materials are lead, cadmium, and a class of hormone-disrupting chemicals called phthalates, which help make yoga mats ‘sticky’.

When the mat is new, these additives can off-gas while you’re practicing (!) and will seep into groundwater when you throw your mat in the garbage, before it winds up in a landfill, where it will never biodegrade, but will end up polluting ground water and if put into an incinerator, will cause toxic, cancer-inducing air pollution. Nice.

It’s unlikely that the gym or studio where you practice has invested in environmentally friendly (i.e. safe) mats, since they can cost twice as much as standard (i.e. toxic) mats, so the only solution seems to bring your own eco-friendly mat. They may be more expensive, but they’re much kinder to the planet, and your own health, too–plus your personal mat will be free of the athlete’s foot fungus and plantar warts sometimes carried by public mats. Click here to purchase.


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