You might eat clean. You might power clean. But can you ever exercise clean if you’re using a public gym? How dirty is the place where you workout?
Two years ago, a website called FitRated did an experiment: they swabbed treadmills, exercise bikes and free weights for bacteria and sent the samples to a lab for testing. The results spawned a thousand internet posts declaring that gym equipment was 362 times dirtier than the average toilet seat. Pretty disgusting, sure, but pretty click-baity, too.
It was actually the free weights that registered that number. Exercise bikes had 39 times the amount of bacteria you’d expect to find on a cafe tray and treadmills had 74 times as much bacteria as a public wash basin.
How’s that for a bit of anti-motivation? We go the gym to feel fit and healthy, not to risk becoming patient-zero in an MRSA outbreak.
The numbers seem high, but it’s important to remember that you’ve probably made it through countless gym sessions, clocked up hundreds of hours on the equipment, without being struck down by a serious illness. Maybe you’ve borrowed a matt from an instructor? Or walked barefoot across the changing room BUT congratulations! you’re still alive, aren’t you?
We’re all probably a bit laissez-faire on gym hygiene from time-to-time. This post isn’t about scaring you into cancelling your gym membership or encouraging you to deadlift in a hazmat suit. And honestly? The toilet seat analogy is used A LOT, but it’s worth realising that there are things that are wayyyyy dirtier than a toilet seat. Reader’s Digest has published a handy list of things highlighting this:
- Your smartphone has 140 units of staphylococcus per swab. The toilet seat has less than 20.
- Your computer keyboard likely harbours 5 times the amount of bacteria than a toilet seat.
- Your kitchen cloth or sponge has 456 times the number of germs found on a toilet seat.
Are you starting to get the picture? Whilst we’re not suggesting that you shouldn’t take gym hygiene seriously, we are saying that it’s worth having a little perspective. Bacteria is on everything and so the potential for infection is everywhere.
It’s also about understanding the difference between bacteria and a virus. Speaking to Global News, Jason Tetro a microbiologist explained that whilst it’s possible to get ill from bacteria - you do need a large amount of it to be present in order to get sick. You’d need at least 10,000 germs to get an infection. A virus, he explains, is different. You only need about 200 microbes. Which is easy if someone is coughing or sneezing. Viruses can easily be spread by other gym users via air conditioning and poor cleaning habits.
How Filthy is Your Gym?
MRSA is a bacterial infection that can sometimes be antibiotic resistant. It’s often associated with hospital patients as they’re most vulnerable when recovering from illness or surgery. 1 in 30 people carry MRSA harmlessly on their skin. It can disappear quickly without the carrier noticing it or it can 'cause infection if it gets deeper into the body’.
There’s a concern that hot studios can be a breeding ground for MRSA. We shared the results of a study in a previous post where MRSA was found in a number of hot yoga studios, but it can be found in gyms, too. The 5 C’s of MRSA transmission show why these can be such healthy environments for this very unhealthy superbug:
Crowding (people exercising alongside one another)
Contact (people might touch you to correct your form, handshakes, hi-fives, passing items between one another etc)
Compromised skin (gym wear can be more revealing that normal clothes, cuts or scratches aren’t protected properly)
Contaminated items and surfaces (using a towel or a matt that’s not hygienic, equipment that’s not been cleaned)
Lack of Cleanliness (poor hygiene by the gym or other users.)
Gym Germ Hotspots
Your gym should be practising good hygiene. It’s one of the most important things to look for when you’re choosing which gym to sign up to. You should see staff regularly wiping down equipment, cleaning the locker rooms and bathrooms. There should be antibacterial agents available, too. Hopefully, you’ll see other gym users taking responsibility for this as well, and don’t be a dick -- make sure you’re doing the same before and after you’ve completed your own workout.
Changing rooms can be pretty gross; it’s a public area where people are changing, getting naked and showering. That’s a lot of dead skin floating about (and what bacteria likes feeding on). It’s where a lot of people are walking about barefoot, too. You’re literally walking in the footsteps of people wearing outdoor shoes. Philip Tierno Jr., PhD, a clinical professor of microbiology and pathology at NYU Medical School and the author of The Secret Life of Germs, told Fitness Magazine that trainers and shoes ‘track in faecal matter’ from which you can catch stomach flu or hepatitis. Men’s Health has a pretty disgusting description about changing rooms as ideal breeding grounds for athletes foot, too.
Pro Tip: wear flip-flops and treat the changing rooms like you’re playing the floor is lava.
Matts. Writing as someone who has borrowed a yoga matt from an instructor in the past, I have to admit that I’m a little bothered by this one. I just remember being super-relieved that I could use one because wouldn’t working out on the bare floor have been worse? Yes, but it was still a pretty disgusting thing to do when you don’t know how often they’re cleaned and how well they’re disinfected. And it’s not just yogis that need to watch out. Anything with a porous surface is pretty awful for hygiene.
Jason Tetro is a microbiologist and he told Global News that gym mats were the worst. You can catch skin and fungal infections, colds and flu from them. But what really takes the cake for stomach-churning news is what US surgeon Dr David Anthony Greuner was quoted by the BBC as saying: that you could potentially get herpes from a dirty gym matt. It’s rare but the fact that it’s possible should make you think twice before you use a matt that’s not your own.
Free weights are more likely to harbour higher levels of bacteria simply because they’re often not wiped down as often as cardio equipment is. Think about it: we use our hands to pick them up allowing bacteria to go from our skin onto the weights and vice versa.
Towels can be pretty disgusting, too. You may even be guilty of taking one to the gym, wiping the equipment down but then using that same towel to wipe the sweat off your face, hands or neck. It’s easily done. Women’s Health reported on a 2009 study in The Journal of Infection in Developing Countries that found that the pathogen Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) can last for days on towels. It also found that absorbent towels held more bacteria than sports ones.
Protip: The same goes for your gym kit, too, so keep that clean.
Sweat doesn’t cause acne or infections, but moisture is a breeding ground for the bacteria that can. If you’re working out with headphones in the gym, then you can catch middle-ear infections if you’re prone to them. EarHugz are sweat-resistant antibacterial headphone covers that are machine washable and will help keep your workout hygienic (and sounding great). They’re comfortable and secure during exercise as your ear hugs the Ultra-Stretch, MAX-DRI™ fabric.
It’s definitely possible to catch a whole heap of nasties in the gym. Just like it’s possible in shopping centres, in schools or offices and on public transport. Use common sense and hopefully the worst thing you’ll catch is the odd cold. Exercise is important and by being sensible with hygiene, its benefits should far outweigh the risk of serious infection.