It’s easy to get sick at your favorite fitness facility. Here’s where to look for germs, bacteria and viruses.
You don’t want your training routine at the gym to be the reason you get sick and are sidelined from working out. You know you should be wiping down equipment and not sharing towels, but do you know why? Do you know how long you should be waiting to use any equipment after wiping it down with a sanitizing wipe?
“The gyms have gotten much better [about cleanliness] in recent years, Thomas S. Ahrens, Ph.D., R.N., F.A.A.N., and authority on infectious disease. “A lot of them have alcohol-based wipes that can be used to clean equipment, in addition to hand sanitizer and that’s all good. Now, you just need to make sure you’re using that correctly.”
We also chatted with cleaning experts and skin doctors to learn about where you might encounter gym germs and bacteria that could be making you sick or cause a skin reaction—and how to avoid them. If you notice a strange rash or reaction on your skin, make an appointment with a dermatologist to get it checked out and treated.
Consider Being a Morning Exerciser
If you’re concerned that a crowded gym filled with mouth-breathers are spreading germs all over the equipment you plan to use, you might experience peace of mind by being among the first customers at the gym if your facility does a good scrub at night. “If you’re going into a gym that’s been closed all night, there’s a good chance most viruses have died,” says Ahrens. “The one virus that probably hasn’t died would be the norovirus, the stomach flu.” So make sure you still wipe down equipment you’re using even if your facility smells and looks clean.
Survey and Sniff
“The lobby, those counters and floors, water fountains, restrooms and the showers tend to get a lot more cleaning attention in the gym as well as the floors throughout the gym,” says Bradley Kemp, president, which services Orangetheory gyms. “I think in general, the equipment tends to get missed more than anything else. If you walk into a gym and it smells and looks clean, then you’re probably pretty safe. Little things that you want to look for are dust buildup on the equipment. Especially the cardio equipment. If there’s a bunch of dust on there then that’s a telltale sign the facility likely isn’t being cleaned enough.”
It may come as a surprise but unless the gym serves food, its cleanliness isn’t regulated. So keep that in mind and do your own due diligence when it comes to choosing the gym that’s right for you.
This might seem like a no-brainer tip, but who wants to use your sweaty towel? Besides the general ick factor, you could transfer methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MSRA) bacteria to one another through a shared towel.
“That bacteria is dangerous because as it says, it resists antibiotics,” says Ahrens. “You’re more likely to get that via person-to-person transmission, rather than leaving it on a surface.”
“We don’t want people to be paranoid, but we want them to be aware of the things that are going to put them at risk for exposure,” says Ahrens. Viruses like the cold and flu may not live very long on equipment (about 15 minutes), unless it’s on something wet and then it will live longer, he says. “I’ll go through an entire workout, about 30 to 40 minutes, without cleaning my hands, but I’m not touching my face,” says Ahrens. “If you are going to touch your face, then you absolutely have to clean your hands.”
It sounds silly, and might look funny, but Ahrens backs this tip up. “You can even make a case that since people are drinking out of the water fountain, there might be some airborne bacteria or viruses present,” he says. “Wave your towel over the area to clear the air before you drink.” Perhaps another gym goer is about to get a cold the next day, is already infectious and doesn’t know it. As they breathe out over the water fountain, they’re expelling those viruses, which are now in that area, says Ahrens. Then, you bring your face to that same area and take a few sips. Waving your towel over that area of the fountain may help disperse some viruses that could be lingering, he says.
You’ve wiped down the cardio equipment and hopped on, ready to start your workout. Chances are, you probably didn’t wait long enough to touch it. “Some people will wipe down a surface, then they will take a towel and wipe it off and you should never do that,” says Ahrens. “The goal is to make sure the surface stays wet for awhile. We typically say leave [any cleaner or sanitizer] on for 45 seconds. Then, you can be pretty confident that you’ve killed anything.”
You can pick up staphylococcus aureus bacteria at the gym. “It lives on the skin and in the nose, and is generally benign and doesn’t cause problems for healthy people,” says Tsippora Shainhouse M.D., FAAD, board-certified dermatologist. Staph is the leading cause of skin and soft tissue infections, such as boils and cellulitis. “[This bacteria] will transfer to gym equipment if someone wipes their nose or has it on their skin,” she says. If you get this infection you might need a doctor to drain the boil or prescribe an antibiotic basics.
“You routinely have germs on your skin, but if you break the skin, that’s a critical weakness because now there’s an entry point for those germs that normally are kept outside,” says Ahrens. If you have a cut or any break in the skin, cover it with a bandage and maybe lifting gloves as well. Protect it so you don’t let any bacteria in. It also goes without saying that if you notice a scratch or cut while working out, don’t touch it and then keep working out. Clean it and cover it if you can. At the very least, if it’s a simple scratch, keep your hands off it, Ahrens recommends.
Getting Herpes at the Gym
Yes, you’re more likely to get the herpes simplex virus type 1 by kissing someone who has a cold sore (herpes simplex) or if you kiss them before a lesion shows up. But, if you touch equipment that someone with a current active lesion touched, especially if they touched the lesion and then touched the equipment, you may also be in contact with the virus, says Dr. Shainhouse.
“Technically, people who get cold sores can actually shed small amounts of the HSV virus at all times. Some research has shown that the HSV virus survives for short periods of time outside the body and can survive on dry, inanimate surfaces—ranging from a few hours to eight weeks. “The viral load is significantly reduced by two hours after touching something, but it can last on your hands until you wash them or use alcohol sanitizer,” says Dr. Shainhouse. To prevent getting infected (up to 75 percent of people have been exposed and have antibodies already), wipe down equipment before using it, don’t touch your face when working out, and wash your hands well after exercising.
When’s the last time you did a good wipe down of the device that rarely leaves your hands? If you touch dirty gym equipment and then touch your phone and phone screen, you’ve transferred anything from that surface to your phone, says Dr. Ahrens. “Phones should be cleaned routinely,” he say. “They’re almost like your hands. So if you don’t clean your phone often enough, you can definitely get something on there that could make you sick.”
Your gym might smell like bleach and cleaner when you walk in, but when’s the last time you saw the gym staff wipe down every yoga mat? That’s why you should wipe it down yourself and let it dry before using it or use a clean towel to cover the mat. Better yet, bring your own mat from home and clean it after every use. You can get a fungal or yeast infection from mats at the gym, says Dr. Shainhouse. Fungus causes infections, including tinea pedis (athlete’s foot), onychomycosis (nail fungus), tinea corporis (ringworm) and tinea cruris (jock itch), she says. “These fungi can be found on the locker room floors, around the pool, and possibly on benches, seats and unwashed mats.” One of the reasons your gym requires you to wear a shirt is because you could pick up the yeast from lying down on shared equipment at the gym. Wearing a shirt and wiping down the equipment before using the weight bench or mat may help prevent picking up any infections, says Dr. Shainhouse.
If you’re walking in a shower area, you should absolutely be wearing some type of foot protector, suggests Ahrens. The shower area is where you’re going to see potential growth of bacteria. “Make sure that you protect your feet–don’t walk around barefoot, don’t share towels, don’t sit on surfaces unless you have clothes on,” Ahrens advises. If you’re only changing from work clothes to gym clothes and need to swap socks, stand on a towel to protect your bare feet from exposure to a dirty floor.
If you think a nice, hot soak sounds relaxing after your workout (you’ve showered off before hopping in, right?), you might be wary after reading this. Pseudomonas is a bacteria that actually thrives in warm water and might be in your gym’s hot tub, says Dr. Shainhouse. “Pseudomona is a major, rash-causing bug in hot tubs. It can also cause greenish infections in nails,” she says. “While chlorine does help kill it, if the chlorine levels aren’t checked frequently and the water isn’t changed regularly, this bacteria can grow. It could lead to Hot Tub Folliculitis, a pink, itchy, bumpy rash on the body that can take days—or weeks—to resolve.” Sounds like it would be more relaxing to have a hot soak in your tub at home.