For the first time in my 33 years, I’m visiting the gym on a regular basis. I’m not totally sure why I’m doing it — probably because I have a child now and I’d like to be able to not have to lie down after five minutes at the playground. I’m also working from home these days, and I fear going from “slightly-chunky-guy” to “oh-my-God-please-don’t-sit-next-to-me-on-the-airplane-guy.” Anyway, whatever my motivations, I’m going to the gym now and I’m sticking with it. So naturally, I decided to look into all the horrible germs that are there. Why would I do this to myself? Well, this one I really don’t know, but I did it and here’s what I found out.
The General Gym Space
Just to get started here, there’s a lot of gross stuff lurking around in your gym, so much so that it’s probably too much to list without it taking several days to read about all of them. To give you an idea, from one 2015 study alone, three gyms were examined in Chicago over the course of two days where 356 samples were taken. From that, they found nearly 11 million sequences of bacteria of several thousand different kinds.
“Essentially, anything that humans touch will be contaminated,” explains Jason “The Germ Guy” Tetro, author of The Germ Files and host of the Super Awesome Science Show. Basically, what he means is that anything that’s on you is going to end up on something at the gym, and the same goes for every other gym-goer.
So what exactly is that stuff you’re touching? Well, according to that study, a lot of it is Pseudomonas, which Tetro tells us is a natural environmental bacteria from your skin and the soil that won’t really cause you any problems unless you have an open wound. You’ll also find a lot of Acinetobacter, another common bacteria from the soil, but this one can house viruses pretty well. There’s also Corynebacterium (a common and fairly harmless skin bacteria) and Micrococcus (found in dust and soil and probably won’t hurt you). The one you want to watch out for though is Staphylococcus, which accounted for about eight percent of what was sampled in that study. Staphylococcus is the stuff that can give you a staph infection, including one known as MRSA, which Tetro says, “can be very troubling because it’s antibiotic-resistant and can cause some nasty infections that don’t go away.”
And now, let’s get specific.
The Various Workout Machines
For the variety of workout machines you’ll find at the gym, what you’ll come into contact with will vary depending upon what body part is coming into contact with it. So, for example, that 2015 study says, “Paracoccus were significantly enriched on shoe surfaces,” which means the treadmill, StairMaster and the floor. While this probably won’t hurt you, Paracoccus can cause an eye infection, and as a bacteria, it’s known as an “extremophile,” which means it can thrive in extreme conditions, including in space, so don’t think you’re so hot, astronaut on a stair machine.
For surfaces that come into contact with hands, like the elliptical handles and the free weights, they found Anaerococcus, which generally comes from the vagina, and Finegoldia, which comes from the GI tract. If you’re wondering why this stuff is found on hand surfaces, it’s because people don’t wash their hands. UGH. “If you aren’t washing your hands properly or you’re ‘leaking’ from a certain area of your body, you may end up spreading fecal coliforms, which is essentially poop,” adds Tetro, citing another study from 2014 which found that salmonella, klebsiella, enterococcus and serratia (poop, poop, poop and more poop), were found on free weights, benches and stationary bikes.
If part of you is wondering if this is true of everywhere you go, let me tell you, it’s not — or at least, not this much. According to that 2014 study by the University of Memphis, “Compared to other indoor environments, it is interesting to note that fitness centers offer a unique setting to explore microbial diversity. This can be attributed to the physical activities with high frequency of surface touch by individuals with different personal hygienic practices.”
So, all different kinds of people, with all different kinds of hygiene practices, all visit the same place and touch all different kinds of surfaces. So yeah, it’s gross… really gross.
If you’re practicing yoga to try to achieve some semblance of peace, let me completely ruin that for you. According to a piece from Elle, yoga practitioner and microbiologist Dr. Robert Lahita of Rutgers University claims, “A yoga mat is a perfect incubator for many of our skin infections.” That’s because we sweat all over these things and they’re never cleaned.
It’s true: In that piece, they lab-tested some yoga mats and found all kinds of gross stuff. Among them was micrococcus luteus and empedobacter brevis, both of which live in our respiratory tract, and likely got onto the yoga via a cough or sneeze. While micrococcus luteus is generally harmless, there have been cases where an infection of it led to septic shock. As for empedobacter brevis, while it’s also probably safe, it can be linked to meningitis.
In addition to those — and a few other forms of bacteria — they looked for and found an abundance of fungi, including the ones that lead to athlete’s foot and ringworm. Fungi is so potent on yoga mats that it’s also been covered in the New York Times: In the linked piece from 2006, a podiatrist says that whenever people come to him with fungal infections, “The first thing I ask is, ‘Do you do yoga?’” Your yoga mat is basically a giant germ sponge — just something to reflect on while trying to still your mind during Burmese Position.
If you’re looking for a refreshing dip in the pool after doing downward dog on a fungi-infested yoga mat, let me ruin this for you, too. Tetro says that generally, pools aren’t so bad because they’re so chock-full of chemicals, but in a gym, he says that, “There may be less attention to those levels, and if that happens, then you have a greater chance for infection to spread.”
What kinds of infections, you ask? Well, you may run into stuff that could result in warts and lesions caused by viruses like HPV; norovirus, which can cause you to crap your brains inside out; a particularly nasty lung infection known as legionnaires disease; eye infections via conjunctivitis; and, of course, there’s more fungi in there too.
Oh, one more thing — if you think you’re safe from this because your gym’s pool always has an overwhelming stench of chlorine, you’re not. See, chlorine doesn’t cause that smell, chloramines do, and chloramines are a byproduct of the reaction chlorine has when it hits bodily fluids like, for example, urine. So the stronger the chemical smell, the more pee there is in that pool.
The Locker Room
You might think that since so many guys stopped going naked in the locker room, perhaps less germs would be present in there, but no — there’s still plenty of disgusting stuff lurking all around you. A study by Fit Rated checked out just three surfaces in the locker room (the sink faucet, the shower handle and that dreaded wooden bench) to find out how many colony-forming units there were per square inch.
The bench, which is probably the thing we’re the most afraid of, was easily the least populated, with a meager 8,241 colonies per square inch. The shower handle was next, with 153,279 CFUs per square inch. Then there was the faucet, with a staggering 545,312 CFUs. And no, this wasn’t chosen simply from the grossest gym ever, this was an average of three different gyms, and one of those three faucets had seven million CFUs per square inch.
The kind of bacteria they found was also alarming, especially on the faucet. Fifty-seven percent of what was on that handle were Gram-negative rods, which are harmful bacteria that can cause all kinds of infections and illnesses. Thirteen percent of the faucet handle was Gram-positive cocci, which can cause skin infections and even pneumonia. While the bench had Gram-positive cocci too, 55 percent of what was found on the benches was Gram-positive rods, which are fairly harmless. So, sit in peace, but wash with caution.
Now, yeah, I know — on one hand, I’m telling you how people not washing their hands is getting crap all over the gym equipment, and then I’m telling you how horrendous it is to touch the sink faucet. But hey, that’s our world: It’s a disgusting, horrendous, germ-infested place, and short of bathing in hand sanitizer every five minutes, there’s not much you can do about it. Just wash your hands very thoroughly and try not to touch the faucet after you’re done.
You might think the excess of old man balls dangling around the sauna would make it a steam-filled petri dish, but Tetro says that, comparatively, the sauna’s not that bad. “What makes the sauna not such a problem happens to be the fact that it’s hot in there, which doesn’t allow for much bacterial growth.” He goes onto explain that bacteria prefer temperatures anywhere from 70 to 120 degrees fahrenheit: This is where they can colonize most effectively. But the heat from the sauna, which ranges from about 150 to 200 degrees, has the same effect on them that it does on us, i.e., while it may not kill them, it does make them sluggish.
That said, there are still some precautions you should take. Tetro says that if a lot of people are coming and going in a crowded sauna, you’ll run into the same bacteria you might encounter on any of the workout equipment, especially if you immediately sit in the puddle of sweat from a seat that was just vacated. It’s due to this risk that Tetro says to wear a towel in there, which conveniently brings us to the final section of our body-building biology lesson…
The towel can be your best friend or your worst enemy. According to Tetro, “Towels soak up much of the sweat and help to prevent the spread of those bacteria. However, unless you’re drying them out completely, they can also become petri plates.” So while that trusty gym towel is a reasonable line of defense against the gym’s horde of bacteria, that’s only the case if you clean it very regularly.
And that’s about it. Please excuse me now as I stuff multiple cookies in my face and resume my status as a fat-guy-in-progress.