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If It's You They Are Talking About…
Do's and Don'ts of Gym Hygiene (Part One )

There is no question that sweat and exercise go hand in hand. Sweat is the body's way of cooling down the internal heat created by all those muscles contracting at the same time. While some people do not enjoy sweating, others love the feeling of working up a good sweat when they work out.

Unfortunately, where there is sweat; there is also the infamous BO or body odor. If you have ever worked out beside someone with BO, you know how unpleasant it can be. Just when you need all the air your lungs can take, you don't want to breathe! BO can give you a headache, make you feel weak and wobbly, and want to throw up.

I was reminded of this two weeks ago at the AsiaFit Convention in Hong Kong. During a strength-training workshop, I was assigned a partner who positively reeked. He was a pleasant fellow with a lot of good insights but I could not concentrate on what we were doing because of his overwhelming BO. After a while, I noticed the sympathetic looks on the faces of the other participants. I could almost hear them saying, "Poor you but better you than us". We had a lot of room to practice our exercises because no one wanted to be near us! No wonder he was sitting all by his lonesome when I entered the room. Since I could not exactly change partners, I had to grin and bear it for the next thirty minutes. When I told some colleagues that the incident was the inspiration for this week's column, they all began to share horror BO stories about their clients or even fellow instructors. They said I would do a service to the exercising public by writing about this sensitive issue.

For the inside scoop on what causes BO and how to prevent it, I consulted Dr. Socouer Oblepias of the Research Institute of Tropical Medicine (RITM) in Alabang. She confirmed what I have always suspected - that the person with BO doesn't know they have it. She explained that the person becomes immune to the smell so they are not aware that they are causing olfactory damage to the people around them. As a fitness professional, I have had many occasions where I have had to gently confront clients that they have BO and never once has a person said to me that they were aware of it. In fact, most of them vehemently denied that they had it.

How to tell if you have BO
Since smelling your own armpits won't give you a clue to whether you have BO or not, how can you tell if you have it? Theoretically, only a true friend would tell you but since it is such a sensitive topic (how do you tell someone they stink without hurting their feelings?), you may not be able to depend on friendship.

You can't ask even ask your own family to tell you the "truth" because if they haven't told you by now it means they have gotten immune to the smell or they smell the same way too. Oblepias says that BO can be common to the entire family either because of diet or poor hygiene.

It might be better to notice the body language of people around you as you exercise. Do people cover their noses as they workout beside you? Is the gym staff walking around with an air freshener? Are you the only one on the cardio machines even if its peak time? Maybe it's because no one dares stay near you. Do the machines fill up right after you get off? Do your aerobics classmates all stay on one side of the room leaving you with all the space to exercise? Is the person beside you turning blue and making gagging noises? All these signs could mean that, as the ad says, "it's you they are talking about".

Smelly bacteria
Oblepias explained that there are two types of sweat glands: apocrine and eccrine. The apocrine glands are mostly located in the navel, armpits and groin while the eccrine glands take care of the rest of the body.

She said that it is bacteria feeding on fatty acids in armpit sweat that are responsible for the bad smell. Thus, the most common cause of BO is poor hygiene and not using or improper use of a deodorant/antiperspirant. More on this next week.

Diet and lifestyle
There are other causes, which are worth mentioning because smelly armpits are not always the culprits. Diet and lifestyle could be the reasons. A person who has had one too many drinks the night before will smell of alcohol the next day when they exercise. Ditto for the person who has eaten the "tastes like heaven but smells like hell" durian. An overdose of garlic, onions, and spices in the diet manifests itself in sweat that smells like, well, fermented garlic, onions and spices. Not pleasant at all!

Medical conditions
Other causes can be an underlying medical condition like diabetes (acetone smell), bladder infections (ammonia smell), phenylketonuria (mousy or musty odor), or even infected tumors.

Blame the laundry
When clothes are not dried properly (common during the rainy season) or the detergent is not completely rinsed out, it can cause a pungent smell to emanate from your body when you sweat.

Lotions and potions
Certain medicines or lotions that are applied to the skin can be acrid when combined with sweat. Same thing goes for strong perfume or cologne. Smelly feet. While we are at it, I have to mention smelly feet or the 'terror' of locker rooms because it is standard procedure to off shoes during the now popular mind-body classes like yoga, tai chi or Pilates. Smelly feet have the same causes as smelly armpits. It is the sweat and bacteria combination at work again. We will discuss how to deal with them as well next week.

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