Mats, dumbbells, cardio machines, and resistance bands all have a few things in common. For one, they’re all pieces of equipment that can help you reap the physical and mental health benefits of exercises. And, depending on the strength of your immune system, they can all get you sick thanks to the many germs that call the gym home. It should come as no surprise that the place where you and dozens of others go to sweat it out is, well, pretty germy—and the germiest gym spots may surprise you.
Luckily, there are many ways to avoid germs and keep your immune system fresh and clean. With the help of medical health investigators, health studies, fitness trainers, and wellness experts, we review areas of the gym where most germs and bacteria tend to hide. Plus, find out how to stay healthy and hygienic while you work out.
Or really any sort of exercise mat. Caitlin Hoff, a health and safety investigator, says that mats are often ignored during cleaning and continue to be used by many different people. According to Hoff, an exercise mat can be one of the most germ-filled pieces of equipment in the gym because of the material. Mats soak in a lot of sweat—while this is good visually (so you’re not embarrassed during a yoga class) it can mean that many germs are buried within the mat.
Sweat is known to be a culture (or catalyst/carrier) for bacteria, in particular, Staphylococcus aureus, commonly known as staph. To put this bacteria into perspective, about one in three people have staph in their systems. Staph usually isn’t a threatening issue, unless it comes into contact with broken skin. But let’s be realistic: There’s no guarantee you can avoid getting nicked during a workout session. Hoff recommends bringing your own mat to a gym session or class. Rubbing down a gym mat with cleaner may not get rid of all the absorbed germs.
You probably learned to avoid touching your mouth to the water fountain early on—and it’s still good advice. An individual fountain can contain chemicals such as chlorine, chloride, and fluoride (to help fight against germs and bacteria—talk about picking your own poison), as well as mold and rust, which can harbor their own list of germs. Mold can be a vessel for bacteria and viruses that can produce allergens that attack your respiratory system. Rust can also be an issue because when it interacts with broken skin, it harbors bacteria that can cause tetanus. A study by FitRated discovered more than 62,000 CFUs (also known as bacteria colony forming units) on a school’s water fountain. A healthy solve: Bring a large water bottle from home to sip from throughout your workout.
There was a reason our parents demanded we bring shower shoes when venturing to summer camp or college. Shower floors are crawling with germs. According to Hoff, the warm, wet environment creates the ideal location for bacteria to stay and grow. Plus, given the high traffic, gym showers are introduced to many different carriers. Viruses such as plantar warts, a form of HPV, are extremely common and can be hiding in gym showers, as well. Hoff recommends always wearing protective footwear and keeping a barrier like a towel if using the steam room or sauna. Additionally, be wary of touching parts of the shower with your hands. In the same study performed by FitRated, they found that a simple gym shower handle contained more than 153,000 CFU of bacteria (almost 100,000 more than a school’s water fountain).
Locker Room Sinks
Gym sinks, according to FitRated, are actually the germiest spots in the entire gym. Filled with more than 545,000 CFUs of germs, the faucet handles are a watering hole for bacteria, fungi, and viruses. In fact, 57 percent of the germs located on a gym’s sink faucet contain gram-negative rods, which are harmful to humans. These germs can cause illnesses, such as pneumonia and meningitis. While 30 percent of germs on the faucets are mostly harmless to humans, the remaining 13 percent are known as gram-positive cocci, which can lead to different skin-related infections and septicemia.
Try not to use gym sinks and bring antibacterial hand gel instead. This lowers your risk of exposure to the sink’s elements while also ridding your hands of harmful bacteria from other parts of the gym.
It’s a common misconception that your home gym is safe from germs because, well, it’s your home gym. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Fungi that can lead to several different infections live in dark, warm places and grow based on personal hygiene, regardless of others you come into contact with. Other areas of your home gym, even the floor, according to personal trainer and wellness expert Caleb Burke, can be good environments for bacteria. The most important lesson with a home gym is to clean and sanitize constantly, even if you’re the only user. Another helpful hint: Try diffusing an essential oil such as tea tree, as it’s noted to be antifungal and antibacterial.
Weights & Cardio Equipment
Germs ranging from staph and HPV warts to ringworm and impetigo are located throughout the gym. All of these can live right on the handlebars of a stationary bike or an elliptical. Don’t assume everyone is wiping down their equipment as they should. Next time you want to use weights or any cardio equipment, clean up before and after. This way you guarantee yourself a safe workout and leave behind a courtesy for the next user.
Your gym bag can be the home of various unwanted germs that enter your home if you’re not careful. As mentioned earlier, dark, warm, damp locations can harbor the growth of both fungal and bacterial germs. Athlete’s foot (or jock itch), for example, occurs due to the unclean treatment of apparel and footwear in your gym bag. To avoid getting a fungus such as this, bring along a spare bag for dirty clothes after your workout, and immediately place them in the laundry room when you get home. You should also change your socks and air out your shoes after use. Many gym bags now come with separate open-air compartments for footwear.
It’s a hard reality to face, but, simply put, the gym is germy. Don’t let it stop you from keeping up with your workouts, though. Stay aware and bring wipes and hand sanitizer to do as much personal cleaning as you can. At the end of the day, some exposure to germs isn’t going to hurt you. Do your due diligence and get moving!