When you think of the gym, you’re probably focused on getting stronger, improving your endurance, and just feeling good from workout endorphins. The thing you’re probably not thinking about? Germs. But, considering 63 percent of all gym equipment is contaminated by the same virus behind the common cold, you may want to think twice about how you interact with cardio machines, free weights, and locker rooms. We teamed up with two experts to discover the places germs hide at the gym. Plus, how you can protect yourself and stay healthy.
The Most Germ-y Spots at the Gym
Dr. Patrick Schlievert, Professor and Chair of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at University of Iowa, says the most common way to get germs is from direct contact with other people. Other culprits? Wet floors and equipment that hasn’t been disinfected.
“Weight rooms and yoga mats are often considered shared equipment,” Schlievert explains. “All you need is sweaty people sharing these things. Wet floors often have microbes like staph and athlete’s foot fungi, due to dampness, unless appropriately disinfected. I’ve also found that as many as 50 percent of folks do not wash their hands after using the toilets, so think about door handles as well. And this seems obvious, but never use a shared razor, as that’s just HIV and Hep C transmission waiting to happen.”
In terms of bacteria and viruses, consider the gym a standard public place. It’s ripe for infection. “People transfer the bacteria and viruses found on their skin onto surfaces via contact,” says Dr. Michael Carruthers, Assistant Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at Des Moines University. “Frequently touched surfaces and surfaces that are often moist generally harbor the most microbes. Be particularly wary of surfaces that are not easily cleaned or sanitized, such as benches or mats that have cracks in their coverings.”
Home Gym Germs
According to Dr. Carruthers, home gyms are a little bit safer. You may find microbes in the same places but, it will be from the bacteria found in and on your own body. Still, he recommends cleaning any surface you sweat on, like a bench or yoga mat, on a regular basis.
Dr. Schlievert agrees, with one condition: “Yoga mats get yucky fast because folks sweat. But, it is your sweat and your microbes. The problem is if you share these items with family members or anyone joining you [in a workout], or you take something like a yoga mat to the gym, where you can pass germs to others. Keep things washed and dried, including your clothes.”
Do Sanitary Wipes for Gym Equipment Actually Work?
“Wipes provided at gyms are good at killing microbes on surface if they contain a disinfectant and are used correctly,” reassures Dr. Carruthers. “Following the instructions is important and can be very different between different type of wipes. Depending on the active ingredient in the wipes (e.g. bleach, alcohol, or quaternary ammonia), the instructions provided may require that a surface to be wetted using the wipe for anywhere between 2-10 minutes to be effective. When in doubt, ask the gym staff about the wipes they provide and the policies/procedures regarding equipment cleaning and disinfection in between users.”
Sanitizers do help kill viruses, most of which can be washed away. But Dr. Schlievert says some can later become resistance, like staph, fungi, streptococci, and gram negative (fecal) bacteria. Still, using sanitary wipes before and after using gym equipment is always a good idea.
How to Protect Yourself
Both experts agree: wash your hands, keep gym equipment clean and dry, and most of all, use common sense.
“Protecting yourself from germs while exercising is not very different from avoiding getting sick when you’re shopping at the grocery store or eating a restaurant, except you shower after,” claims Dr. Carruthers. “Wash your hands regularly with soap and water. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers are ok to use as a substitute if your hands are not visibly soiled. Do not share items that are not disinfected, cleaned, or laundered in between sharing. This includes items such as towels, bar soaps, loofahs, sweatbands, razors, or creams/ointments that are dispensed by placing your hand in an open container (e.g. tubs of petroleum jelly).”
“It’s hard to protect yourself from the locker room. Wash thoroughly and rely on the gym location to sanitize floors and doors,” says Dr. Schlievert. “Lots of folks will pick up staph and athlete’s foot fungi anyway. Use equipment sanitizers and wash your hands when you’re done. Pay attention to the people around you. Microbes can get through damaged skin. Do not share equipment where blood and saliva may be involved, such razors or water bottles. Remember, your skin is the best defense your body has.”