April 7, 2012 -- Some people jokingly say they're allergic to exercise. But the truth is, many of the materials used in gym equipment, pools, and locker rooms are known to cause wheezing, sneezing, coughing, and watery eyes in even the most seasoned gym rats living with allergies. Even worse, harmful chemicals linked to all sorts of serious health problems, including thyroid disease and even obesity, are commonly found inside health clubs.
If you don't want to undo all your hard efforts with chemicals that will make you fat and unhealthy, a few simple strategies can help you to steer you clear of allergens and harmful compounds in the gym. (Of course, it's always a good idea to figure out what you're actually allergic to in the first place.)
Breaking into hives every time you perform downward dog is not the Zen-like situation you hoped for in yoga class. If your chakras are itchy, the problem could be the mat, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI). While cushy natural rubber mats are a great, ecofriendly option for most yoginis, they're a bad choice for people living with a latex allergy because trace amounts of latex may be present in the rubber mat. But instead of reaching for a toxic PVC mat laced with hormone-heckling plastic chemicals, latex allergy sufferers can find greener, safer mats made of hemp or organic cotton.
If you're not allergic to latex, try a sustainable yoga mat, like the Gaiam Sol Shakti Rubber Yoga Mat or any mat from Jade Yoga.
Swimming is great exercise, but chlorine is an asthma trigger for some people. In others, chlorine triggers itchy, red eyes or a rash. If you don't feel well after a water workout, it could be that your pool is not properly ventilated, or the maintenance crew could be using too much chlorine. Ask them to check the levels, but if you still feel awful after swimming laps, it might be time to consider a saltwater pool, which disinfects water without the use of chlorine. Some gyms have started to move away from chlorine, but the only way to know that is to call around to the pools in your area. To cut down on additional chlorine exposure and to cut down on chloroform levels circulated around your house, shower immediately in properly filtered water after swimming.
The Locker Room
Don't let your first stop in the gym expose you to triclosan, a common ingredient in antibacterial soaps that is linked to thyroid disease, compromised immune systems, and hormonal chaos that could affect your weight and health. Just last month, a study published in journal Environmental Health Perspectives found a link between triclosan and allergies. Avoid gyms that use antibacterial soaps or, if you're already a member, ask management to start using unscented Green Seal Certified soaps that skip the harmful compounds. Or bring along your own safe soap or hand cleanser, such as ones from Dr. Bronner's or Pangea. Finally, keep an eye out for gym equipment marked "antibacterial." Though triclosan isn't the only chemical used in such products, there's no way for you to know what was used.
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Disinfectants and Air Fresheners
With the potentially deadly MRSA superbug circulating around gyms, and able to live for months on equipment, many gym managers are using toxic disinfectants to wipe out the bacterial bug. Unfortunately, disinfectant sprays can contain hundreds of phthalate-loaded fragrance chemicals and VOCs regulated as toxic or hazardous under federal law. These nasty, but all-too-common, cleaner ingredients are linked to everything from cancer and asthma to headaches and allergies. Making matters worse, using antimicrobial cleaners and soaps is actually making the supergerm situation worse. Instead of wiping machines and equipment down with toxic chemicals, work on keeping your hands away from your face during your workout, and as soon as you're finished working out, get a shower or at the very least wash your hands with regular soap and water—it's a simple solution, and it works. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers have been found to kill MRSA, and alcohol does not lead to antibiotic-resistance. But be sure to find a wipe or gel that is at least 70 percent alcohol and fragrance free. On a similar note, if your gym is using air freshener sprays and gels, the indoor air may be dangerously polluted. Tell management these chemicals aren't safe, and that they make it harder for you to breathe.
The Smoothie/Snack Bar
Protein bars, shakes, and smoothies may seem tempting after a workout, but people with nut, wheat, egg, soy, or milk allergies should look at labels carefully, and if smoothies are prepared on-site, make sure they have a separate blender to use for those who are sensitive to keep those allergens out of the mix—or just skip smoothies altogether. Many are loaded with harmful food dyes and excess sugars and sweeteners, including potentially mercury-laced high-fructose corn syrup. Instead, whip up a healthy smoothie at home after a workout, and look to whole, organic foods—not energy bars—for your meals.
If every workout leaves you itching, your clothing could be to blame. Cheap, synthetic materials like polyester and nylon, used in everything from shirts to underwear, sometimes cause people with sensitive skin to feel like they're coming down with the chicken pox. Check clothing labels before you purchase; Lycra (spandex) is less likely to irritate, according to the ACAAI. Better yet, look for natural fibers, including high-quality, naturally wicking wool.
Be sure to avoid workout clothing, socks, and underwear marketed as "odor-fighting," "odor-free," "antimicrobial," or "Microban." These things could contain compounds that many public health experts say to avoid.
Your Exercise Technique
Jumping headfirst into strenuous exercise without properly warming up could prompt exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (EIB), a condition characterized by a tight chest and trouble breathing, generally seen in people with asthma, but sometimes in people without respiratory problems. Try warmup and cool-down techniques and to curb EIB, breathe through your nose rather than your mouth when you exercise. If you're sick with a cold and have asthma, stay put. Viruses can trigger an asthma attack.
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