7 Places Germs Hide at Your Gym

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 learned this from an oncologist... Report
I've been working out at public gyms for decades, long before they started talking about picking up germs there and no one wiped anything down. I travelled a lot for work so I ended up in all kinds of gyms, even YMCAs in ghetto areas occasionally that weren't very clean at all, and the only thing I ever got was athlete's foot from a shower floor once or twice (which ended up being pretty easy to get used to).

I've been to quite a few karate and a few judo schools, where you get each others' sweat all over yourself, and I don't remember ever getting anything from it.

My philosophy is it's better to exercise your immune system.

I wear leather gloves at the gym. Not because of germs, but because I don't like getting callouses on my hands, but I suppose they help keep germs off. Report
A guy biking next to me hopped off his bike without shutting down his program and without wiping down the machine. I warned the next guy who was about to use it. My gym has wipes dispensers and alcohol gel all over the place. Report
I bring Lysol wipes and wipe machines before and after I use them. There is a towel policy, but no one wipes the machines after use. The gym does their best to wash machines, but everyone should do their own clean up, if they expect a clean healthy gym. Report
The wellness center I go to has a no-touch system that refills water bottles. I dont even touch the water fountain. Keep a refillable water bottle in my bag all times. Report
Great article! Report
I make sure that I wipe the machine down before and after use. Report
ewww. makes me want to quit. Report
I didn't know that about water fountains. Report
Had no idea how germy water fountains are! Thanks for the heads up Report
Good to know Report
thank you Report
I always have my wipes packed to wipe surfaces down.

Thanks for the information. Report
Thanks for important information, I’m happy to have enough equipment at home that I don’t need to go to any gym! A person can lose weight just fine without a gym, truly! Report


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.