Q: After years of gentle ribbing from friends, I’ve decided to take a rather big plunge and sign up for a gym membership. My gym-free lifestyle has nothing to do with an aversion to physical fitness (I’m actually a bit of a health nut and an avid jogger) but because I’ve always been just straight-out wary of the places. I think this stems mostly from the “germ factor” and because in my mind, a gym can turn an otherwise lovely person into a grunting, impolite animal stripped of any sense of decency and decorum. Before I start paying my monthly dues and sweating it out with a bunch of strangers, I’m wondering if you have any pointers on the gym germ and etiquette fronts. How can I steer clear of treadmill-borne bacteria and not end up cursing someone out for doing something I perceive as rude?


A: A big plunge indeed, my friend. But not to fear … joining a gym for the first time ever (or for the first time in a very long time) isn’t as bad as you might think it is. Below are a few tips on how to comfortably ease yourself into gym-going with no regrets as well as pointers on basic etiquette and germ-avoidance. Easy peasy. Let me know how it goes.


The buddy system: You shouldn’t go through this alone. Join a fitness facility where a trusted friend or co-worker already has a membership so he or she can show you the proverbial ropes (and the rowing machines, ellipticals and weights). Or better yet, if you know anyone else who suffers from a case of gymphobia, encourage him or her to join with you so that you’re both in it together. Hiring a buddy in the form of a personal trainer is also an option if you haven’t considered it already.


The comfort zone:  I may be preaching to the choir here but take your sweet time when it comes to vetting potential gyms. In addition to the “friend factor,” ensure that you join a gym that you feel comfortable with, whether it’s co-ed or same-sex only. Follow your instincts on this one … some gyms have certain “scenes” and for one reason or another, they often tend to cater to specific clienteles (i.e. hardcore muscle heads, chit-chatty 20-something women wearing full makeup, on-the-prowl singles, older folks etc.) Make sure that the gym culture at your top contender is one that you can tolerate. And if it means driving an extra 10 minutes to get there, so be it (that is unless it’s so far away it discourages you from going). Other considerations include availability of equipment, special classes/programs, hours and what seems to be a biggie for you, cleanliness.


Sanitizing to the oldies: Yes, it’s true, disease (bacteria, viral and fungal infections, oh my!) does thrive especially well at gyms, but if the one you eventually choose is properly maintained, this should be a non-issue. Feel free to grill the staff before joining a gym about their cleaning schedule and methods. They should take this very seriously. If they don’t, take your business elsewhere.


Still, a gym’s staff can’t guarantee a completely germ-free atmosphere so you’ll need to remain vigilant. Most gyms should have disinfectant spray readily available, so by all means, use it before jumping on a machine even if it appears to be clean … you can’t assume that whoever was using it before had the courtesy to wipe it down. When it comes to the locker room, invest in a couple pairs of cheap plastic flip-flops and don’t let them out of your sight (or off of your feet) unless you’re looking to pick up a gnarly case of athlete’s foot. When showering, skip the heavy-duty, chemical-laden antibacterial soap and get yourself a bar of naturally antibacterial, antifungal tea tree oil soap. And for the love of God, bring your own mat. Also important: If you have even the tiniest cut, scratch or blister keep it covered with a Band-Aid to prevent any unsavories from coming in contact with your skin.


The sweat-stained code of conduct: There’s no doubt about it that while at the gym, some folks seem to enter “the zone” so deeply that they lose any sense of self-awareness and can come off as being, well, a bit inconsiderate. Don’t let this dissuade you from attending. It happens. And if you’re particularly irked by someone’s behavior, feel to unleash ye olde stink eye.


A few gym etiquette basics that you should expect from others (and follow yourself) include: Dressing appropriately, not hogging equipment, not singing Katy Perry at full volume while on the elliptical, wiping down equipment after you use it, cleaning up after yourself (in the workout area and in the locker room), leaving the kids at home, using your phone (a big no-no), covering yourself in the locker room (I don’t care how comfortable with your body you are, this isn’t St.-Tropez) and practicing basic personal hygiene (that means using deodorant). Avoid hovering, cutting, gawking, eating and, last but not least, making excessive noise. Sure, a few grunts and groans are to be expected, but if a fellow gym-goer reaches this level and/or starts making noises commonly associated with the passing of kidney stones, then it’s perhaps best to remove yourself from the area.


— Matt


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Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

Care to share any gym etiquette pointers?
What are the rules of etiquette at a gym? How do I know if the gym keeps its equipment and facilities clean and germ-free?