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Are Germs at the Gym Making You Sick?

Gyms can pack some super-strength germs. But can we exercise without catching a cold or scary skin infection? Read on for a germ-free action plan.
Are Germs at the Gym Making You Sick?
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People go to the gym to gain muscle, improve endurance, and release some endorphins along the way. But with shared machines and locker rooms (not to mention some seriously sweaty bods), gyms can also be chock-full of germs.

Germs on the Run — The Need-to-Know

When it comes to public spaces, the chances of germs sneaking around are, well, inevitable— and the gym is no exception [1]. One study dug deeper and found rhinoviruses (the culprit behind the common cold) on 63 percent of gym equipment [2]. (Having second thoughts about lying down on the bench?) To make matters worse, researchers found that disinfecting equipment didn't kill off all germs. And machines used by several people in quick succession, like cardio machines and free weights, may be the hardest to get squeaky clean.

One possible explanation? Cold and flu germs tend to stick around longer on hard surfaces than fabric and rugs, and can remain alive and well for up to 48 hours. (Anyone up for a home workout instead?)

Beyond the common cold, sweat and contact with open wounds can make athletes more susceptible to skin infections. The most infamous fitness bug is the staph bacterium MRSA, which can cause a nasty skin infection. Yet, this skin-scare may be exaggerated; one study couldn’t uncover MRSA in gyms, suggesting this “super bug” is only passed skin-to-skin, not skin-to-treadmill, shoulder press, yoga mat, and so on [3]. (So avoid hugging it out with strangers after a workout.)

Scrub n’ Shield — Your Action Plan

Scared stiff? Not to fret: Prevention is the best bet to keep pests from getting in the way of that workout. And remember, the health benefits from exercising at the gym definitely outweigh the risks— so don’t even think this is an excuse to avoid breaking a sweat.

  • Know before you go. Before joining a gym, take a walk around to make sure it looks spick n’ span, there’s an active housekeeping staff, and all fitness areas are well ventilated.
  • B.Y.O.B. Bottle, that is. Believe it or not, water fountains may be swimming with more bacteria than toilets! So skip the water line and bring a large bottle of filtered H2O from home.
  • Sanitize. Rub in some hand sanitizer after hitting the cardio or weight machines to get rid of germs. And don’t forget to wipe down the equipment with cleaning spray or a sanitizer wipe before and after use!
  • Switch up towels. Germs are lurking on the handlebars and weight machines [4], so use one towel to wipe down the machine, and grab another clean one for that sweaty face.
  • Cover cuts. Keep out, infections! Band-Aids will guard against germs and other skin infections. Bring a few extra in case they peel off during a workout. (We recommend using these!)
  • Soap up. Don’t leave the gym with extra… guests clinging on the body. Showering with antibacterial soap after working out is a fine way to fly home solo. Just remember: Most germs are hiding in the locker room shower, so wear flip-flops to avoid picking up a wart virus.
  • Keep to yourself. Sharing may be important in kindergarten, but skip out on sharing soap, deodorant, or razors brought from home. We’re trying to spread workout habits and good hygiene, not germs.

What other places give you the germ creeps? Subways? Airport bathrooms? Tell us in the comments below!

Photo by Collin Orcutt

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Works Cited +

  1. Occurrence of bacteria and biochemical markers on public surfaces. Reynolds, K.A., Watt, P.M, Boone, S.A., et al. The University of Arizona, Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science, Environmental Research Laboratory, Tucson, AZ. International Journal of Environmental Health Research, 2005 Jun;15(3):225-34.
  2. Prospective study of bacterial and viral contamination of exercise equipment. Goldhammer, K.A., Dooley, D.P., Ayala, E, et al. Department of Medicine, Brooke Army Medical Center, Fort Sam Houston, TX. Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine, 2006 Jan;16(1):34-8.
  3. Are gymnasium equipment surfaces a source of staphylococcal infections in the community? Ryan, K.A., Ifantides, C., Bucciarrelli, C, et al. epartment of Pediatrics, College of Medicine, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL. American Journal of Infection Control, 2011 Mar;39(2):148-50.
  4. Prospective study of bacterial and viral contamination of exercise equipment. Goldhammer, K.A., Dooley, D.P., Ayala, E, et al. Department of Medicine, Brooke Army Medical Center, Fort Sam Houston, TX. Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine, 2006 Jan;16(1):34-8

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