Germs in the gym: Don’t skip wiping it off

WAs the pandemic eased at first, and gyms reopened their doors to eager fitness enthusiasts, it was clear how imperative it was to wipe down every piece of gym equipment after you’ve used it. No one wanted to share germs, and we’d all become hyper-conscious about what we couldn’t do by leaving our droplets behind.

Now that life is starting to feel more normal for a while, though, gym-goers everywhere are noticing that more and more people are slacking off on post-use equipment care. Which begs the question: How cruel is it really to not wipe down shared gym equipment? To find out, we chatted with two germ-based experts: family medicine physician Marjan Johnson, MD, and Patty Olinger, executive director of the Global Biorisk Advisory Council on behalf of the global cleaning industry association, rethinkclean.org and ISSA.

What germs can be on gym equipment?

Despite shouting from the rooftops, not everyone washes their hands. Even those who do don’t do it often enough or often enough to rid their hands of every germ. Additionally, as humans, we breathe and our breath can also harbor germs. With that in mind, Olinger says it’s important to pay attention to both touch points and air quality when hitting the gym. “We see a wide variety of common germs on gym surfaces, including everything from flu, strep and staph to covid and RSV,” she says.

Dr. Johnson adds that stuff is especially common in gyms. “These bacteria spread through direct skin contact and can live on various gym equipment that comes into contact with the skin, including weights, mats, bikes, and the like,” she says. “The more dangerous and contagious form of staph is methicillin-resistant staph aureus aka MRSA.” And MRSA can stick to shared gym equipment as well as changing rooms.

While the gym floor is less likely, Dr. Johnson says the bathroom can be a breeding ground for fungus. “One that comes to mind is athlete’s foot, swimming pools, changing rooms, mats and other places where walking barefoot is the norm, caused by a variety of fungi,” she says. For this reason, Dr. Johnson says, never shower or walk barefoot in public areas.

Speaking of mats, fungus can grow in humid environments, so if you use a sweaty communal yoga mat that hasn’t been thoroughly wiped down, you could be at risk. “Ringworms are forms of this fungus that occur in the body,” says Dr. Johnson, adding that a spread on a mat can cause a contusion.

As far as viruses, Dr. Johnson said, there’s also HPV, which can cause warts. “Warts are annoying and can travel not only to others, but to other parts of the body, even if they are on the feet and hands,” he says.

While many gyms have air filtration systems—and there’s always the option of wearing a well-fitting mask—another option is to take your own personal purifier to the gym, which Dyson has made possible with its latest innovation, which launched in January 2023. The Dyson Zone ($949) headphones offer up to 50 hours of ultra-low distortion audio, and yes, air purification, thanks to a detachable chin strap-inspired visor that funnels fresh air into your nose and mouth. Sure, these headphones look wild, and they’re not cheap, but if air quality and good sound are most important to you, they might be worth a look.

Which piece of equipment harbors the most germs?

While all surfaces can harbor germs, Olinger says those that are porous (think: yoga mats, rubber flooring and medicine balls) are the hardest to clean, so they’re usually more prone to transfer. “Before you sit down on a mat to do sit-ups, grab a spray and wipe it down (or use a disinfectant wipe), and make sure to wash your hands thoroughly after your workout,” she encourages.

How long does it take for bacteria to grow on equipment?

There is no single hard and fast answer. “It depends on the equipment and the condition of the facility,” Olinger said. “For example, many germs thrive in warmer temperatures, so steam rooms, showers, and hot yoga studios may have different types of germs than the main areas of the gym.”

So what should you do now?

Even with health-focused protocols, germs are almost everywhere in gyms. “Not all microbes are bad and our bodies are covered in them — they live inside us and are really important to our bodies,” Johnson says. “However, the important thing is to be protected from those that can cause infection.”

In addition to being aware of gym equipment hygiene, Olinger says to think about personal hygiene as well. Namely, don’t touch your face. “When working out, many people tend to touch their face to wipe away sweat,” she says. “If you’re just touching equipment, or sitting on a mat to sit on, you can easily transfer those germs to your nose, eyes and mouth.”

If you’re concerned about how absentmindedly you touch your face, keep a bottle of mild-but-effective hand sanitizer handy. We like Touchland Power Mist ($10), which comes in 14 scents and comes in a convenient slim square bottle that makes it easy to keep in your pocket or bag.

And remember: even if you see someone just wiping tools, it never hurts to follow up.

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