One of my favorite things at the gym is the nice variety of exercise classes.

My favorite class combines stretching and strength training with a real aerobic workout. But when I was there this week doing the mat exercises at the end of class, I couldn't do some of the simple exercises. It's not that they were too hard. I was spazed out because I forgot my own mat.

When I tried to lay my head back on the gym's mat, I noticed it was horribly grimy. For that matter, the exercise ball I was using as well as the hand weights and body bar all were filthy.

Instead of concentrating on stretching my muscles, all I could think about were the millions of germs that were probably getting in my hair from the mat and equipment used by everyone.

I never thought it would happen, but it did. I caught a case of germaphobia. It's an epidemic that is sweeping the country.

I vowed it would never happen to me. I think we are obsessing about germs to the point where it seems each week we are warned about germs lurking in some new unsuspected place.

We're told our desks, phones and cell phones harbor more germs than our toilets. We're warned not to touch any surface in public places. We're told we're better off not reading the magazines in doctors' offices because too many people have touched them.

This week's Associated Press story warned that potential pathogens can and do lurk on doctors' and nurses' uniforms. The study, which was published first in the American Journal of Infection Control, found potential pathogens on 63 percent of the tested white coats or uniforms. Some of the cultures grew into the dreaded MRSA.

All that information is enough to drive you to make crazy decisions. Consider this: After reading that story about germs on magazines in waiting rooms, some people have carried it to extremes and said they've stopped taking books from the public library because of fear of germs.

At a seminar last week, I laid a cookie and napkin on a countertop while I poured myself a cup of coffee. Another woman said I should throw the cookie away because part of the it was directly on the countertop that was touched by dozens of people. (The open plate of piled cookies was probably touched by a lot of people, too.)

Yikes. We're going crazy worrying about germs.

When I am out to dinner, I always order water with a slice of lemon, even though we're told not to do it because the lemons aren't washed enough to negate germs. Heck, if we thought about all the places bacteria can be and all the kitchen hands involved, we would probably never eat out in the first place.

If it's true that early exposure to germs, dirt and bacteria builds up immunity in our bodies, I should be protected forever. As a kid, I was always playing in dirt or the polluted creek that ran through town. But we didn't know the word "polluted" back then. We didn't know fear of germs either.

That's not true of today's kids. Some school districts have asked parents to include antibacterial wipes along with their child's school supplies. The wipes are supposed to be used on surfaces others may have touched.

Germaphobia is so prevalent that many people won't shake hands anymore and don't want to be touched in any way. Forget hugs. Hugs are just another danger.

Howie Mandel, the host of Deal or No Deal, is one of the better known people who have an obsession with germs. He makes it known that he won't shake hands and doesn't want to be touched. When he was hospitalized after passing out, he refused to put on a hospital gown.

While we all know hospitals are probably the easiest place to pick up infections, it isn't always possible to avoid them. Nor is it possible to avoid germs.

I try not to worry about what I can't control. It's impossible to follow all the health warnings without going a bit crazy.

I buy bagged, prewashed, cut-up lettuce for my daily salads. But a survey came out that said prewashed bagged salad isn't any better than whole heads of lettuce for avoiding germs.

A few websites advocate soaking all fresh produce in a mild wash of bleach and water. Other websites warn don't do it. The bleach could be poisonous.

One of my friends absolutely refuses to eat lettuce of any kind because it all harbors germs, she says. As proof, she sites our lettuce-loving neighbor who has serious complications from E.coli bacteria. They haven't pinpointed the cause.

Years ago, we had few of today's kitchen precautions and we seldom worried about germs of any kind. Don't you wonder how we all grew up and lived this long?

While I refuse to obsess about germs, I still have a problem with that gym class. When we use machines on the main floor of the gym, we wipe them down before and after use. Somehow we have to extend that to the exercise room.

Life is sometimes like walking a balance beam. We all try not to fall off while we seek a balance between caution and craziness.

My problem sometimes is telling when a practice is prudent and when it slips into crazy. When it comes to fearing germs, I think many of us are slipping into the crazy mode.