Working out is supposed to make us healthier, happier beings. And it does. But Self magazine went undercover with research experts to uncover germs found at the gym — and there are a lot of them.
Here are some precautions you should take, courtesy of Philip Tierno Jr., Ph.D of microbiology and pathology at NYU Medical School, and the author of The Secret Life of Germs.
The Locker Room
Locker rooms are a perfect hot bed for staph, strep, and MRSA infections. Dr. Tierno Jr. says the dangers start on the floor, where people walk in with fecal matter on their shoes. The organisms the fecal matter harbors can give you stomach flu and hepatitis A.
And those benches? Never ever sit on them with your bare behind. Dr. Tierno Jr.’s studies found traces of vaginal yeast on them, putting you at risk for yet another infection.
Lesson Learned: Never walk around barefoot throughout the locker room or shower, and never sit on the benches naked.
Your Gym Bag
It may seem harmless, but think of all the places you set your gym bag down inside the gym: the locker room, the floor, a bench. Microbes can latch on carrying staph, salmonella, E. coli, and pseudomonas which can all cause eye infections.
Lesson Learned: Vinyl or plastic gym bags are less likely to hold onto germs and bacteria. If you keep your sweaty clothes in your gym bag, restrict them to one compartment and then clean the area with disinfectant wipes or spray when you get home. Better yet, keep them in a plastic bag you can throw out later. Canvas or cloth bags can be washed weekly in hot water using a bleach or peroxide-based detergent.
If you’re a regular yoga or Pilates attendee, consider investing in your own mat instead of using the gym’s, which could contain skin infections like athlete’s foot, flu and cold germs, and hepatitis A.
Lesson Learned: After each use, wipe down your mat with a bleach-based wipe or a disinfectant spray with 60 percent alcohol. Let air dry.
Your Water Bottle
Never, ever reuse the same water bottle twice. Thousands of bacteria lurk at the bottom from every time you take a gulp. It’s no better than drinking out of a public swimming pool, experts say.
Lesson Learned: Invest in a wide-mouthed bottle that doesn’t have a pull up spout or built-in straw. Dish-wash it daily and then store it in the fridge. This prevents bacteria from forming, which usually occurs in warmer environments.
Believe it or not, cardio machines are more likely to get wiped down than other gym tools, like free weights or mats.
Unfortunately, this still doesn’t mean they’re totally devoid of viruses. Dr. Tierno Jr. found 63 percent of machines still had traces of rhinovirus (which causes the common cold) even after being wiped down by gym staff. Gym bike seats were found to have staph, fungi, and yeast.
Lesson Learned: Bring your own disinfectant wipes and wipe away! Never put your towel on a surface you haven’t cleaned yourself and then wipe your face with it.
You’ll never feel the same way about public swimming pools again: The Centers for Disease Control report that “62 percent of pool-related diarrhea outbreaks are the result of the chlorine-resistant pathogen cryptosporidium, which is spread by fecal matter.” There’s also an increased risk of eye and ear infections.
Lesson Learned: pH testing and cleaning of the pool should be done daily and the info should be posted somewhere by the pool. You can also use your nose as your guide. You shouldn’t be able to detect the smell of chlorine. If you can, the chlorine hasn’t reacted with microorganisms which means the pool is dirty. Wear goggles, a swim cap, and ear plugs in the water to protect from skin, ear, and eye infections.
Weight Machines, Free Weights, Exercise Balls
Although gym staff should be thoroughly cleaning these tools throughout the day, Dr. Tierno Jr. still found MRSA on these items.
Lesson Learned: Follow the steps about cardio machines and use your own disinfectant wipes. If you don’t have any on you, use antibacterial gel (available in multiple areas of your gym) both before and after using these tools.
Self magazine also offers these quick tips to stay healthy at the gym:
- Wash your hands before and after your workout.
- Never share your towel, mat, or water bottle.
- Cover cuts or scrapes with a band aid.
- Don’t shave at the gym or directly before going.
- Shower at home when you can. Always wear flip flops in gym shower.
- Examine your skin weekly for red spots or bumps. See your doctor ASAP to seek treatment for possible MRSA infections.