Fitness Articles

7 Places Germs Hide at Your Gym

Where They Lurk & How to Avoid Them

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You hit the gym to improve your fitness, not to pick up sickness. But with the combination of sweat, humidity, shared equipment and confined spaces, health clubs can be hotbeds for germs. From the common cold to hepatitis A to Novovirus, there could be dozens of bacteria and viruses lurking in, on and around your favorite workout gear—some of which can live for days on hard surfaces. A study published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine found that 63 percent of workout equipment was contaminated with rhinoviruses (RVs), which are known to cause the common cold as well as upper and lower respiratory tract infections.
 
This doesn't mean you should stop going to the gym—the benefits far outweigh the risks. With the right awareness and precautions, you can still get your sweat on without bringing home any unwelcome companions. The first step to avoiding gym germs is knowing where they live. Below are some of their favorite health club hangouts, along with precautions you can take to protect yourself.
 
Hotspot #1: Water Fountains
 
Studies have found that water fountains can actually harbor more bacteria than toilets, as their wet surface makes them a breeding ground for germs. The basin is most likely to be contaminated, but the handle may also contain some nasty microbes.
 
The safest way to hydrate is to bring your own water bottle. If you must use the fountain, follow these precautions: Turn it on for a few seconds before drinking from it, don't let your mouth come in direct contact with the spigot, touch only the handle and wash your hands afterward.
 
Hotspot #2: Locker Rooms and Showers
 
Germs thrive in wet, humid areas--putting locker rooms and showers right in the danger zone. The biggest threat is Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a bacterium that can cause skin infections. Showers can also pass along warts, ringworm, strep, athlete's foot and other not-so-fun fungi.  
 
The best way to stay safe is to shower at home—but if you must lather up in the locker room, wear flip-flops to avoid coming in direct contact with floor-dwelling microbes (and to prevent slipping). Other best practices include bringing your own antimicrobial soap and shampoo, drying your feet thoroughly after showering, and wearing a towel when sitting in the steam room or sauna.
 
Hotspot #3: Yoga Mats
 
Next time you're doing crunches or settling into your favorite stretch, consider that your exercise mat most likely absorbed the sweat and germs of whoever last sweated on it. The best precaution is to bring your own mat. If you must use a shared mat, wipe it down with a disinfecting spray before and after each use, and place a towel on the mat as an extra germ barrier.    
 
Hotspot #4: Cardio Machines
 
Treadmills, ellipticals and stationary bikes are great for burning calories, but the trade-off could be a burning fever later. To reduce the threat, use hand sanitizer after your workout. Most gyms provide sanitizing spray to wipe down machines before and after each use.
 
Hotspot #5: Weight Machines & Free Weights
 
As people do full-body exercises with shared weight machines, there's a bigger chance of spreading germ-filled sweat. Again, sanitizer is the best defense: Spray down and wipe each machine before and after each use, and apply hand sanitizer between sets.
 
Hotspot #6: Gym Bags
 
In addition to clothes and gear, your gym bag could pick up some unwelcome passengers—like E. coli, Norovirus and staph—through contact with benches and floors. To prevent this, choose a bag in a material that's less germ-friendly, such as plastic or vinyl, and wipe it down with disinfecting spray when you get home. Store sweaty clothes in a separate plastic bag.
 
Hotspot #7: Towels
 
Even if the gym's towels have been washed, they could have picked up bacteria or viruses from baskets, benches or lockers. To stay clean, dry and germ-free, bring your own towels from home: One to absorb sweat during workouts and another if you're showering.
 
Quick Tips for Germ-Free Workouts
  • Before choosing a new gym, take a tour and check to make sure it's clean and well-ventilated. Ask about the gym's policies for day-to-day cleaning of equipment and machines.
  • Keep any cuts covered with a moisture-resistant bandage during workouts. Most infections enter the skin through lacerations.
  • Bring your own water bottle, mat, towels, boxing gloves and toiletries.
  • Wipe down all cardio and weight machines with sanitizing spray before and after using.
  • Wear flip-flops in the shower and locker room.
  • Wear a towel when sitting in the steam room or sauna.
  • Even if you plan to shower at home, wash your hands before leaving the gym.
  • Store sweaty workout clothes separately from other items.
  • Spray your gym bag with sanitizing spray and wipe it down after each use.
  • If you notice any skin irritations, such as a rash or red, painful area, contact a doctor to check for possible infection. 
How do you avoid germs at the gym?

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Member Comments

  • I have used mats before without wiping them down. But will NEVER do that again. Thanks for the info.
  • This article & the comments have convinced me to exercise at home. It all sounds so complicated, but also important. I don't want to be the one to make others sick.
  • Great article and info!
  • Oh, STOP obsessing about every little germ and ditch the sanitizer already! Exposure to microbes is what builds a robust immune system. I have NEVER, ever worried about germs anywhere, and I am NEVER sick. That said, I DO wipe down equipment after I've used it because that's just good manners.
  • Thanks for sharing
  • The sky is falling! The sky is falling! It seems the only way to truly avoid germs at the gym is not to go. We cannot exercise in a bubble nor afford to buy all of our own equipment. Some common sense is required. Find a clean environment and perform routine cleanliness procedure4s on yourself and the equipment you use.
  • Agreeing with Seajess and 1Crazydog about washing of hands. Make your own hand wash with aloe vera gel, essential oils, and cheap 70 %proof vodka.
  • YES YES YES! Seajess is absolutely right! The friction action of rubbing your hands together as you wash them will rid your hands of bacteria and not set you up for other problems.
  • Please DO NOT USE ANTIMICROBIAL SOAP. These unnecessarily increase bacteria resistance. Proper hand washing technique will remove bacteria; there is no need to weed out the weak ones and grow the stronger ones to protect yourself.

    Thank you!
  • I needed this a week ago don't let any tell you its not true bikes are a huge problem . i always wiped down after wards going to start doing it before when i get back to gym. it the forgetful sweaty one who forgot .
  • I'm happy to say that the gym I just joined is huge and airy, with 20 foot ceilings. They provide cases of wipes which I always use. I hadn't thought about the clean towels being exposed to bacteria, though, so I'll bring my own workout towel, just for MY sweat, instead of using theirs.
  • I wear leather gloves at the gym to avoid getting calluses on my hands, and I guess a side benefit to doing that is my hands don't contact anything I touch.

    One thing always missing from these discussions is that our bodies have the ability to kill germs. Some would argue that our ability to do that needs to be exercised too. In fact that's the idea behind vaccines; give a person a small dose of a disease so his body develops immunity to it. Trying to seal ourselves off from all germs might not be the best strategy for avoiding sickness.

    I'm not arguing that we shouldn't be trying to avoid germs. My point is I don't know. I'd like to see what is known about this in an article here, and there should probably be more research on that end of the subject.
  • AZURE-SKY
    I've seen people use their sweaty towels to wipe off equipment at the gym, then get mad when told to use the sanitizer provided by the gym.

    My gym has rules prominently posted, but lots of people ignore them. I always wipe the equipment down before and after I use it, using the sanitizing wipes provided by the gym. There's a container attached to the wall right near the entrance.
  • The first - and only - time I have ever been to a gym was in a private fitness club. I went into the gym area and saw a woman using an exercise bike completely naked! Apparently they had regular single sex nights where nudity was allowed....
    You still sometimes see sweaty people in the bar or cafe area (rather ironically) of fitness places. It's just basic hygiene, unfortunately it seems to be against people's human rights to point it out to them!

About The Author

Melissa Rudy Melissa Rudy
A lifelong Cincinnatian, Melissa earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from University of Cincinnati before breaking into online writing in 2000. As a Digital Journalist for SparkPeople, she enjoys helping others meet their wellness goals by writing about all aspects of healthy living. An avid runner and group fitness addict, Melissa lives in Loveland with her guitarist husband and three feisty daughters.