Articles are listed in reverse chronological order. Click a link below to go directly to a specific article.
Germ-Free at the Gym – Chicago Phoenix (5/11/2014)
Germs at the Gym – Fitness Magazine (01/06/2014)
Ask Healthy Living: Do You Really Need To Clean Off Gym Equipment? – The Huffington Post (12/13/2013)
Your Gym Mat May be a Germ Mat – Dallas News (08/27/2013)
Germs in the Gym – HealthDay News (07/26/2013)
Gym Germs: The Grossest Germ Hot Spots At The Gym – Huffington Post (03/07/2013)
For the past two months, I’ve been on a strict running and biking routine at the health club to lose weight. The way the treadmills and bikes are setup at my gym in downtown Evanston, I’m pretty much perched in great spots to see everything everyone’s doing across the entire gym floor. For someone who loves people-watching especially those Northwestern University athletes on the weight machines this is my favorite of the LA Fitness locales.
While enjoying a great people-watching opportunity, I’ve also noticed an array of bad hygiene habits all around me. It’s allowed to give me pause and consider how their habits affect me. This has made me much more vigilant in protecting myself from catching germs that could make me seriously ill.
When you walk into the gym, your first focus should be preventing infection. Pathogens, the scientific word for anything that can cause a disease like bacteria, viruses, and fungi are the enemy. The goal should be to limit their ability to infect you.
Remember that in a gym, everyone is sweating a lot. Moisture and body heat create the perfect environment for pathogens to thrive, and even grow. Every time anyone touches anything in a gym, a pathogen transfer is happening. Germs are moving from one surface to another, with your hands, wrists, elbows, and feet as the vehicles.
With that in mind, always wipe-down equipment a free weight, a handle or bar, a seat and seat back, among other things before you use it. Yes, the person who used it before you may have wiped it down already after they used it. In fact, they should. You can improve infection prevention by doing it again.
Almost all health clubs have paper towels and dispensers of anti-bacterial cleansers. Utilize them. Take several pieces of paper towel, douse them with anti-bacterial cleanser generously. There are a lot of things in life that should be dripping wet this is one of them.
Don’t forget to wipe down the areas where you will drape your hoodie or gym towel. Nothing can be more advantageous for a pathogen than the moment you pick up your towel from a pathogen-rich bar on the side of the treadmill, elliptical or bike, or from the cushions of the weight machines, and wipe your face and neck with it.
As soon as those pathogens enter your body through your eyes, nose, mouth, pores, you’re almost certain to get an infection. You could even break out in acne or develop a rash.
f you’re a commuter like me, you bring a duffel bag filled with your gym clothes and shoes. You take off your clothes, and hang or lay things in the locker. The surfaces in those lockers are home to all sorts of pathogens.
Before you even put anything into that locker, take several paper towels doused in anti-bacterial cleanser and wipe the surfaces. Alcohol-based wipes, which is great to have in your gym bag, can also do the trick and will dry faster.
Do you take a shower at the gym? It’s one of the most common source sites for athlete’s foot infections! You can reduce the chances of getting an infection by bringing flip-flops. Use them as you make that walk from the locker to the shower stall and back.
Gym bag basics
Packing your gym bag after a workout can also be a place to prevent pathogens from spreading.Get a duffel bag that has a separate compartment for your gym shoes (or pack your shoes in a completely different bag). I don’t have to tell you, especially for runners like me, it’s like Vegas for microorganisms in your footwear. They’re literally reproducing in the moist haven that are your shoes.
Always put your used gym clothes especially the sweat-drenched ones in a plastic bag. This keeps the pathogens feeding off your sweat from creating colonies on the interior surfaces of your gym bag. The same could be said of your gym towels. Separate them!
And speaking of towels, don’t reuse them. As soon as they get wet, from either sweat, or after you’ve dried off from a shower, bacteria and fungi have already been introduced into the fabric. Throw them into the hamper as soon as you get home.
Prevention every day
In the end, your health club membership itself is a boost for infection prevention. Studies show that regular exercise in addition to eating well and drinking lots of water helps boost your immune system. The good news is, with regular exercise, you’re better prepared if a pathogen makes its way into your body. White blood cells will amass to fight off infection and help make you better in shorter time than those who aren’t getting as much exercise, or aren’t eating right.
The last advice is something that you should be doing regularly: Wash your hands. Use soap and water when possible. Of all the advice I’m giving you, this is ultimately the best way to prevent illness.
You hit the gym regularly to be healthy and fit. Yet you may be getting more than flat abs and strong arms there. Gyms are hotbeds of germ activity, researchers say. Norovirus, which causes stomach pain, vomiting, and diarrhea, can survive for a month on the surface of exercise machines. The fungi responsible for foot infections multiply at a blinding pace in the shower. And microbes like MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can lead to dangerous skin infections, lurk in the locker room. To help you stay safe, FITNESS asked top experts to ID the biggest danger zones in the gym and to share the best germ-beating strategies.
Hot Spot: Free Weights, Weight Machines, Exercise Balls
Germ Meter = High
Because so many people handle it, this equipment is rife with bugs and viruses that can lead to colds and other infections. “I’ve even found MRSA on an exercise ball in a gym,” says Philip Tierno Jr., PhD, a clinical professor of microbiology and pathology at NYU Medical School and the author of The Secret Life of Germs.
Wipe equipment with disinfectant before and after you use it. No spray at your gym? Carry antibacterial gel and rub it on your hands before and after your workout.
Hot Spot: Locker Room
Germ Meter = High
The sweaty, humid locker room is the perfect petri dish for nasty buggers such as staph, strep, and MRSA, Tierno says. The danger starts at ground level. From outdoors, sneakers and other shoes track in fecal matter (eew!), which harbors organisms that can give you stomach flu and hepatitis A. And before you sit on the bench naked, consider this: Tierno’s studies have detected traces of vaginal yeast there, which can put you at risk for an infection.
Always wear flip-flops in the locker room and shower; avoid sitting on the bench unclothed.
Hot Spot: Exercise Mat
Germ Meter = High
As you stretch, strike a yoga pose, or take a group exercise class, you could be lying in a slew of microbes that can cause skin infections, athlete’s foot, colds and flu, and hepatitis A.
Bring your own mat and don’t share it. After each use, clean the mat with a bleach-based wipe or a 60 percent alcohol disinfectant spray and let it air-dry.
Hot Spot: Gym Bag
Germ Meter = High
While most of the germs in your gym bag are your own, and therefore harmless to you, disease-causing microbes can latch on every time you place it on a bench, in a locker, or on the floor. The most common critters to hitch a ride: staph, salmonella, E. coli, and pseudomonas, which can cause eye infections, says Charles Gerba, PhD, an environmental microbiologist at the University of Arizona.
Choose vinyl or plastic gym bags. Germs and bacteria are less likely to adhere to these materials, says Elaine L. Larson, PhD, the associate dean for research at Columbia University School of Nursing. Keep dirty clothes and sneakers in a separate compartment or stash them in a plastic bag. At home, swab your gym bag inside and out with disinfectant wipes. If you use a canvas or cloth tote, toss it in the washing machine once a week. Use hot water and a bleach or peroxide-based detergent and then put the bag in the dryer for 45 minutes.
Hot Spot: Towel
Germ Meter = High
You grab a “clean” towel from the pile at the gym. What you can’t see is that the fibers may be teeming with E. coli or MRSA. “Most gyms use the same hamper to transport dirty towels and clean ones,” Tierno says.
Bring your own towel, marked with an X on one side with a permanent marker, Tierno advises; only that side should make contact with gym machines. Use the unmarked side to wipe sweat off yourself. Bring a separate towel if you’re showering at the gym. Try an antimicrobial one, available at sporting goods stores, to reduce your risk for infection.
Hot Spot: Water Bottle
Germ Meter = Medium
When you take a sip of H2O during your workout, germs move into your bottle from the rim, and they reproduce quickly. Hundreds of thousands of bacteria can lurk at the bottom; using the bottle after just a few days of not washing it can be the equivalent of drinking from a public swimming pool, Larson says.
Avoid bottles with a pull-up spout or a built-in straw. Instead, choose a widemouthed bottle with a screw cap. Wash it in the dishwasher daily and store it in the fridge, Larson suggests. Germs are more likely to form when the bottle is warm.
Hot Spot: Cardio Machines
Germ Meter = Medium
Sweaty treadmills, ellipticals, and Spinning bikes are more likely to get wiped down after use than free weights are, experts say, but that doesn’t mean these machines are clean. In a study published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine, 63 percent of machines that had been disinfected still had traces of rhinovirus, which causes the common cold. And Tierno’s research found staph, fungi, and yeast on gym bike seats.
Wipe down machines and seats thoroughly with disinfectant before and after you use them.
Hot Spot: Pool
Germ Meter = High
According to the Centers for Disease Control, 62 percent of pool-related diarrhea outbreaks are the result of the chlorine-resistant pathogen cryptosporidium, which is spread by contaminated fecal matter. In addition, bacteria, such as pseudomonas, can cause ear and eye infections, says Elizabeth Scott, PhD, a co director of the Simmons College Center for Hygiene and Health in Home and Community in Boston.
Your gym should post data on the pH testing and cleaning of the pool, which is supposed to be done throughout the day. If that info isn’t available, let your nose be your guide: Because chlorine releases its distinct smell as it reacts with microorganisms, the stronger the chlorine scent, the dirtier the pool. Always wear goggles and a swim cap or earplugs in the water.
Hot Spot: Shower
Germ Meter = High
The gym shower stall is riddled with fungi and organisms that can cause infections, like athlete’s foot, ringworm, and warts.
Shower at home as soon as you get in the door, Tierno advises. Hanging out in sweaty workout clothes may lead to breakouts. If you do shower at the gym, use antimicrobial soap. Never shave there, because bugs can enter your body through tiny nicks. Blow-dry your feet to make sure they’re moisture-free.
Follow this quick checklist to stay healthy while you work out.
- Cover any cuts or broken skin with a bandage before you go to the gym.
- Wash your hands before and after your workout.
- Wipe down machines before and after use.
- Bring your own water bottle, towels, and exercise mat.
- Never share your towels.
- Don’t sit on the locker-room bench naked.
- Always wear flip-flops in the locker room and shower.
- Don’t shave at the gym or immediately before going there.
- Whenever possible, shower at home after your workout.
- Keep dirty clothes and sneakers in separate gym bag compartments or place sweaty duds in a plastic bag.
- Wipe down your gym bag with a disinfectant spray and wash gym clothes after each use.
- Examine your skin weekly. If you find a painful red spot or a bump, see a doc. It could be a MRSA infection, which needs immediate treatment.
Do I really need to wipe down the machines at the gym?
When it comes to good gym etiquette, our Facebook fans and Twitter followers told us wiping sweat off of shared equipment and machines is basically their Golden Rule.
But even though it’s gross to lie down into a puddle of someone else’s perspiration on the bench press, there’s not actually anything inherently germy about sweat. So what’s the deal?
Turns out, our health-minded community is on to something. Warm, moist environments are where bacteria really like to grow, says Dr. Pritish Tosh, M.D., infectious diseases physician at the Mayo Clinic. And if the gym isn’t a warm, moist environment, we don’t know what is. “There is certainly a potential for transmission of certain kinds of infections,” he says.
One biggie is community-acquired MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus), Tosh says, an infection “caused by a strain of staph bacteria that’s become resistant to the antibiotics commonly used to treat ordinary staph infections,” according to the Mayo Clinic’s website. MRSA outbreaks have been documented among athletic teams that share equipment, especially wrestling teams, he says.
Porous materials — like machine padding and yoga mats — are probably more problematic than something like dumbbells, since bacteria will thrive on those soft, squishy materials when they get damp and warm. “With things like athletic pads worn by hockey players, you can see people who are unable to get rid of their own skin infections,” says Tosh. “They keep getting reinfected, because it lingers in the pads, so it’s important to keep those things as clean as possible.”
Other germs that may linger on shared equipment could cause urinary tract infections, E. coli, fungus growth (athlete’s foot, anyone?) and warts, including those caused by human papillomavirus, Men’s Fitness reported.
And let’s not forget about cold and flu viruses. If you know you’re sick with the flu, as a common courtesy to your fellow gym rats, maybe skip a couple of your public sweat sessions, says Tosh. “It’s best to avoid those situations in a public area in close proximity to others so you don’t spread your illness.” And if you do feel a cough or sneeze coming on at the gym, do us all a favor and unleash that spray into the crook of your elbow rather than all over the treadmill.
At the gym yesterday I ran into an issue choosing a clean mat. As I normally stretch out and perform yoga exercises prior to completing my work out, it is important to use a soft mat instead of the hard wood floor. Unfortunately, I chose not to bring my own mat. The 5 or more available roll out mats were dirty or appeared worn and (from what I observed) were not sanitized between use. I felt the sudden urge to blog about my experience.
That evening, I searched the web and found little information in the medical literature concerning gym mats and their link to fungal, bacterial and viral infections. But, I have determined this would be a great idea for a science fair project (any takers?). Gym mats can certainly be petri dishes (growth plates) for germs. Last year, I came “this close” to calling a local child’s gym about their mats when 3 gym members presented with ringworm (a fungal infection). After informing the parents of my concerns, the gym became more proactive in disinfecting the mats and problems never recurred.
Over the years we have seen a surge in the potentially dangerous and difficult-to-treat bacteria, MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus). In June 2008 the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology demonstrated an increasing trend of MRSA among athletes thought to be linked to exercise equipment. In the past years, several local football and soccer players who shared personal protective equipment developed MRSA. Since then coaches, parents and kids have been more proactive in cleaning personal use items and less likely to share their protective padding.
I suppose I need to bring my personal mat or use the available alcohol wipes to disinfect the entire gym mat before each use. As a responsible community leader, I will recommend they use signage to encourage other members to do so as well (I will have a talk with them this week).
As a result of my gym experience, I have 4 recommendations for a healthier work out:
- Use hand sanitizer or available gym cleaning towelettes. These can kill most of the bacteria on the equipment.
- Avoid lying or standing (bare-footed) directly on the gym mats. Bring a full length towel to lie on (not one of the hand towels the gym provides as it is not big enough). Or, bring your own mat.
- Cover up any open skin injuries to avoid contamination from mat germs.
Talk about an unwanted pass — basketballs and volleyballs can spread potentially dangerous germs among players, according to a new study.
The findings point to the need for athletes, coaches, trainers and parents to understand the necessity of properly cleaning sports equipment.
The study focused on the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus, which can cause staph infections in athletes. One kind of staph bug is methicillin-resistant S. aureus (MRSA), which is resistant to many antibiotics.
Researchers from the University of California, Irvine, analyzed the germ threat on basketballs, volleyballs, players’ hands and the gym floor. For each phase of the study, two of the three surfaces were sterilized and the third was left alone. All three surfaces were then checked for S. aureus.
Next, the players used the balls to simulate actual game play. In each phase, previously sterile surfaces accumulated more S. aureus through play. The researchers also discovered that S. aureus could survive on basketballs and volleyballs for up to 72 hours in storerooms.
“The overwhelming prevalence of S. aureus we encountered supports our understanding of the gym environment as a reservoir of germs,” study supervisor Joshua Cotter, a postdoctoral fellow in orthopedic surgery, said in a university news release.
“Institutions, coaches and athletes should take note of the role the sports ball can play as a vehicle for the transmission of potentially life-threatening germs,” he added.
Although the study looked only at S. aureus, other dangerous bacteria and viruses may also be spread among athletes the same way, Cotter said.
The study was presented at a recent meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine. Research presented at medical meetings should be considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.
The Nemours Foundation has more about staph infections.
Zumba class, cardio equipment, free weights and fitness balls all have one thing in common besides getting you in shape: They can also get you sick, thanks to the germs that other gymgoers leave behind. So is your workout likely to land you in bed with a cold? Not if you take a few precautions, say experts.
“Germs are all around us,” says Philip M. Tierno, Jr., Ph.D., director of clinical microbiology and immunology at the New York University Langone Medical Center and member of the Global Hygiene Council, “but most germs are not going to make you sick unless they’re pathogenic [a type that causes illness] or your immune system is compromised.” Germs can survive anywhere from less than a minute to a period of months, depending on the surface and the type and number of bacteria, says Tierno. In other words, we all have to live with germs — but there are plenty of smart tricks to avoid the worst ones.