When you go to the gym, you go to work up a sweat – but so does everyone else.
And if you think about it, all that sweat exchange between strangers makes the gym a perfect breeding ground for all kinds of illness-causing germs.
But is there anything to be concerned about?
There have been studies in the past that have attempted to measure the number of germs found at gyms.
While some carry some merit, others fail to provide context and must be taken with a grain of salt, says Jason Tetro, a Canadian microbiologist.
For example, a report by fitness equipment review site FitRated.com had tested 27 pieces of gym equipment across three gyms in the United States. The tests were carried out by EmLab P&K, a laboratory testing centre.
What they found was that exercise bikes had the potential to carry 39 times more bacteria than plastic reusable cafeteria trays; treadmills were shown to have 74 times more bacteria than a water faucet, and free weights harbored 362 times more bacteria than a toilet seat.
“The reason I think this study is a little conspicuous is because remember that even if we’re just sitting down, we’re shedding between one and 30 million bacteria,” Tetro explains. “When you think about it that way and you start looking at gyms, they’re high traffic areas and people are always going to be touching them, and with people exercising they’re going to be sweating on them as well. Obviously, we’re going to end up having a lot of microbes. So seeing these results it’s like, yah that’s what you would expect. But what got me, though, is that they didn’t actually specifically name the bacteria they found.”
He adds, “Remember, only about .1 per cent of all the microbial species that are out there that are bacterial are remotely pathogenic. The rest are environment, or what we call human flora – they’re just part of who we are.”
Despite that, however, there is still a chance for gym goers to get ill after a session at the gym.
“You’re going to have microbes everywhere in the gym,” Tetro said. “And depending on the person and their hygiene, you may end up with fecal bacteria, staphylococcus aureus — which can lead to an infection — pseudomonas aeruginosa — which could potentially lead to some lung problems like cystic fibrosis — and several other types of microbes that can lead to infection.”
The piece of equipment with the most germs, Tetro reveals, isn’t an elliptical or treadmill — it’s, in fact, an exercise mat.
“Mats, they’re horrible,” Tetro says. “Yoga mats, gym mats and any kind of mats because they have this porosity to them so the microbes can actually get in and start growing biofilms inside the little holes — and when people are disinfecting them, spray it a little and do a quick wipe down. To clean it properly, you have to let it stay wet — get it as soaking wet as you just made it and keep it like that for at least 15 seconds before you wipe it off. So if you’re going to be spending time on mats, make sure you’re cleaning them properly.”
Other pieces of equipment known to potentially cause infection are any machines with rails and machines that are close to people’s “axillary regions” — which are your armpits, butt and groin, Tetro points out.
While that might sound alarming, the chances of contracting any of those germs, Tetro says, is small.
“You’d have to be exposed to a lot of them in order for that to happen,” he says. “And considering the short amount of time we spend on the majority of the gym equipment —as long as you don’t lick them there’s probably not much of a likelihood that you’ll get those massive amounts inside of you.”
In fact, your chances of getting sick from a bacteria is about one in 10,000, Tetro says.
“With the majority of bacteria, you need at least 10,000 of those microbes to cause an infection and very rarely are you ever going to have the opportunity to pick up that much and put it in your mouth,” he says. “That being said, if you’re on a very germy piece of equipment that does have something that could potentially cause infection and you do end up touching your mouth, then there’s a chance.”
Viruses, on the other hand, are a different story. Anyone who goes to the gym has a higher chance — about one in 1,000 — of becoming ill from a virus.
“You only need a couple hundred of these germs to contract a virus,” Tetro reveals. “When someone happens to be sneezing or coughing their cold and/or flu microbes onto these surfaces, then the likelihood of you picking it up and putting it in your mouth — there’s a greater potential there.”
But then what about those anti-bacterial spray bottles and wipes you see at gyms that are supposed to be used to wipe down equipment after use — do they help at all?
A little, Tetro says, but it doesn’t completely rid any equipment of such germs.
So to limit your chances in picking up bacteria or a virus, Tetro suggests the following:
First, shower before and after every workout.
As well, wipe any gym equipment down with the anti-bacterial spray or wipes both before and after using it. Make sure it takes you at least 15 seconds to wipe down any equipment, otherwise it won’t work, Tetro says.
Always wash your hands and avoid touching your face during a workout.