7 Secrets to Avoid Germs at the Gym (Is That Treadmill Dirtier Than a Toilet?)

7 Secrets to Avoid Germs at the Gym (Is That Treadmill Dirtier Than a Toilet?)
iStock/gilaxia

Do you wipe down the equipment every time you hop on an exercise bike, pick up a dumbbell, or run on a treadmill at the gym? Maybe you should.

Whether it’s flu season or not, your local fitness center is a hotbed of germs. While you’ll find illness-causing bacteria in almost every public place, gyms in particular harbor nasty bugs you can catch. In a new study by FitRated, many pieces of gym equipment tested were dirtier than your typical toilet seat or public bathroom faucet. You might want to wash those hands.

Gyms Are Teeming with Bacteria

FitRated usually publishes expert reviews of gym equipment, kind of like a Consumer Reports for the fitness world. They swabbed three different types of equipment at three different gyms to test the levels of bacteria: treadmills, exercise bikes, and free weights.

Bacteria is measured in the number of viable cells or colony-forming units (CFUs), and the study tested four different types: Bacillus, Gram-positive cocci, Gram-positive rods, and Gram-negative rods. While some bacteria are helpful to humans, over 70% of the strains they identified at the gym are not.

The gym equipment was covered in bacteria – over 1 million CFUs per square inch. Here’s what they found:

  • Free Weights: 1,158,381 CFUs – 362 times more bacteria than a toilet bowl.
  • Treadmills: 1,333,432 CFUs – 74 times more bacteria than a public bathroom faucet
  • Exercise Bikes: 1,333,418 CFUs – 39 times more bacteria than a reusable cafeteria tray

From Cardio to the Common Cold

The bacteria you encounter at the gym can cause all sorts of nasty infections, from common colds and flu to skin infections to hepatitis A. Viruses and fungi also linger in the hot, humid atmosphere of your local fitness center. According to the CDC, Norovirus (a dangerous virus that causes gastroenteritis) can live on hard surfaces for weeks.

Free weights, treadmills, and bikes are just a small segment of the gym; other germy zones include weight machines, exercise balls, and the locker rooms. Your gym bag, water bottle, and towel are also likely culprits.

How to Stay Healthy at the Gym

But you don’t have to give up going to the gym. With a few precautions, you can reduce your chances of picking up a bug. Here’s how:

  1. Don’t touch your face.
  2. Wipe down all equipment with antibacterial wipes before and after each use. Don’t be afraid to be the only person doing so. If your gym doesn’t offer wipes, bring your own.
  3. Never use the towels provided by the gym. They may not be washed in hot water, and gyms often use the same containers to transport clean and dirty towels. Bring your own towel from home (antimicrobial if possible), and designate one side for your face and one side for the equipment.
  4. Wash your hands immediately after your workout. Change out of your workout clothes and shower shortly afterward – at home, if you can.
  5. Use a wide-mouth water bottle (skip the built-in spout). Wash it in your dishwasher and store it in the fridge to inhibit bacterial growth.
  6. Bring your own exercise mat and wipe it down with disinfectant after each use; let it air-dry.
  7. Don’t set your gym bag on the floor at the gym, and stash dirty clothes/shoes in a separate compartment or plastic bag. Wipe your bag down frequently with disinfectant, and washcloth gym bags in hot water once a week.

Finally – relax. We can’t beat bacteria completely, nor would we want to:

“We cannot triumph over germs, because the health of the planet Earth and every living creature on it depends on them.” ~ Dr. Philip M. Tierno Jr, Ph.D. in The Secret Life of Germs

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Shilo Urban

Shilo first became interested in conscious living when she found herself working simultaneously at a mom-and-pop natural food store and a farm for endangered livestock breeds on the coast of Maine. After residing in Austin, New Zealand, Paris, Seattle, and Los Angeles, she now lives in Fort Worth, Texas where she works as a freelance writer. Her passions include international travel and wiener dogs.