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Are gyms bad for your health?


Uh oh, I guess this is really a sacred cow. I’m a runner (road, not gym) too. But it looks to me like there’s a big problem in this area of gyms. Not only that, by using a gym, exercisers are actually denying themselves some much greater health benefits.

First of all the bad news about gyms. Past research shows that they often have a serious problem with bacteria. It occurs in most areas of the gym including exercise equipment, hot tubs, swimming pools, showers, towels and so on. One analysis of a site showed that it harbored 132 million bugs in an area the size of a 2p coin, while the average count was 16 million, compared with 500 for the average toilet seat. You’ve got a lot of sweat, warm and moist conditions, maybe with a few ill people thrown into the mix. Kind of like being in heated airplane breathing recycled air. Or a hospital. Either way, not good.

And there’s no state or federal health regulations for gyms. You are totally dependent on the gym itself to keep things clean. Most gyms do take considerable efforts to keep things clean. But it’s clearly an impossible environment from an antibacterial perspective. You are exercising in a bacterial soup and no amount of hand sanitizer is going to change that.

It’s not just the bacteria. It’s also the air. One recent study in New York showed that “Almost all of the gyms in the study had levels of these substances (dust and formaldehyde” that significantly exceed European standards for healthy indoor air standards.” You’re breathing in the exhalation products of a lot of sweaty exercisers as well as the remains of the cleaning and deodorizing products that are used to try to remove the smell of human existence.

But here’s what I think is the bigger problem. That is that gym-goers are denying themselves the immense value of sunlight by exercising indoors. Most everyone is sublimely unaware of the importance of that lack.

It’s well known that most of us lack vitamin D but that it’s essential to good health so many people take vitamin supplements. The major benefits of vitamin D are prevention of osteoporosis and positive impacts on our immune system and heart health. You can also get your daily shot of vitamin D by being out in the sun. But we now know that vitamin D supplements do not replace the health benefits you get from real sunlight. In other words, you really have no choice than to spend some time in the sun if you want to have the best health.

But now there’s more fascinating research about the impact of sunlight on human health. It turns out that sunlight promotes the production of nitric oxide in your skin and that this in turn lowers blood pressure and has positive impacts in strengthening the immune system. But now there’s even more research that links regular exposure to sunlight to reducing obesity and diabetes through both the notice oxide effect and other linkages that we don’t understand yet.

Of course, now that researchers can smell blood in the water, there’s even more good stuff coming out. One is the finding that “outdoor physical activity had a 50 percent greater positive effect on mental health than going to the gym” through its effect of reducing stress.

And of course, when you are exercising outside, you are getting the benefits of breathing air that has been sterilized by the effects of the sun’s ultra-violet rays so you are breathing clean air (unless you are in a big polluted city, and especially if you are overseas such as in Beijing or New Delhi). That’s got to count for something right?

The irony is that many people (me included) have tended to support our non-gym-going habits with our contention that exercise machines don’t give you the same workout as running outside where you don’t get all that help from the machine. But guess what; we’re all wrong. It turns out that it’s basically the same. So that’s one argument you can’t use for throwing brickbats at gym-going.

Of course, if you are exercising, that’s a good thing. It has enormous positive health benefits. I don’t think they are being totally negated by going to a gym. Let’s say they are just being significantly reduced. In some cases that bacterial load you are receiving is going to have much more pernicious effects, so be warned.

The commonsense thing would be just to exercise outside. That might not be possible for many people. So the nest best thing is if you have to go to a gym to exercise, make sure that you spend at least an hour a week in sunlight, maybe walking or cycling.

There is an answer although the gyms might think it’s too radical. That is that the best antibiotics are fresh air and open roofs to let in the sunlight. This was what Florence Nightingale used to recommend and one of the ways she brought down the huge infection rates that existed in Victorian hospitals at the time. You might think that’s kind of old-fashioned.

But there’s a new realization that modern hospital designs, using windows that can’t be opened, no fresh air and a lack of sunlight is actually one of the best environments for infectious bacteria including some of the baddies like staph and MRSA. We need to redesign hospitals to allow lots of fresh air and real sunlight as the best way to reduce these hospitable conditions for deadly infections. That’s how those “old-fashioned” Victorian sanitariums were built, you might remember.

The problem is that modern gyms are designed like modern hospitals with sealed windows and no direct sunlight. The answer is that gyms must be totally redesigned so that they are genuinely healthy places in which to work out instead of breeding grounds for the worst bacteria.

We’ve collectively forgotten that our bodies were designed specifically for a lot of sunlight and fresh air.

I have little doubt that in the near future researchers will demonstrate a strong link between cognitive performance and sun exposure.

In our modern age we have also collectively forgotten that fresh air and sunlight are the best antibiotics.

Until gyms are extensively redesigned my advice is exercise outside as much as you can.
















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