But “should you stop working out? Absolutely not.”
Microbes Love the Gym
Our hands touch everything. That’s why handwashing is arguably one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of diseases. Because our hands are microbiologically filthy. And gym instruments have many hands on them. Besides, microbes thrive in warm and moist environments.
The exercise bike has 39 times more bacteria than the cafeteria tray; free weights have 362 times more bacteria than the toilet seat; the treadmill has 74 times more bacteria than the water faucet, according to EMLab P&K’s laboratory. And more than 70% of these bacteria on surfaces of gym equipment can pose ill health.
Yoga mats are the dirtiest. “Mats are horrible…Microbes can actually get in and start growing biofilms inside the little holes,” explains the Canadian microbiologist, Jason Tetro. “To clean it properly, you have to let it stay wet …and keep it like that for at least 15 seconds before you wipe it off.”
The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found diverse bacteria of soil, water, air, dust, and human microbiota origins on gym equipment — including pathogens such as Salmonella, Klebsiella, Micrococcus, and, the most prevalent, Staphylococcus species — Memphis, Tennessee, USA.
In 2019, BMC Infectious Diseases reported the presence of a methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) in 16 gyms in Northeast Ohio, USA. MRSA contamination was found in 62.5% of weight ball and curl bar, 56.3% of weight plates, 50% of treadmill handles, and 18.8% of bathroom and door handles. Over a third of these MRSA are multidrug-resistant against benzylpenicillin, oxacillin, erythromycin, clindamycin, and/or ciprofloxacin.
One-third of the public carry MRSA on their skin, which normally doesn’t cause complications but, nevertheless, is a risk factor for severe infection. In the United States, MRSA accounts for 80,000 invasive infections — e.g., heart valve, bone, joint, or bloodstream infections — and 11,000 deaths annually.
“I would say these rates are potentially higher or on par with most surface contamination,” comments Mark Dalman, the lead researcher of the MRSA study. “Our results indicate not only the presence of putatively dangerous isolates of S. aureus but also that increased cleaning regimens and enhanced hygiene practices should be followed in fitness facilities as is practiced in the hospital or workplace,” Dalman et al said.
Some other pathogens (and disease they cause) possibly reside in the gym include:
- Dermatophyte fungus: Athlete’s foot, jock itch, and ringworm
- Human papillomavirus: Plantar warts
- Herpes simplex virus type 1: Herpes gladiatorum
- Rhinoviruses: Common cold
- Poxvirus: Molluscum contagiosum
- Pseudomonas aeruginosa: Hot-tub rash
Putting Into Context
These pathogens, fortunately, don’t necessarily cause diseases. We have skins after all. “Remember that even if we’re just sitting down, we’re shedding between one and 30 million bacteria,” says Tetro. “As long as you don’t lick [the equipment], there’s probably not much of a likelihood that you’ll get those massive amounts inside of you.”
Not to mention that regular exercise augments and delays the aging of the immune system. A session of intense exercise temporarily weakens the immune system? No, that’s a myth, says Campbell and Turner in the Frontiers of Immunology in 2018. I visit the gym several times a week, and I haven’t got sick for years.
“It’s really important to go to the gym and be healthy and people should not (have to) worry about getting sick... The health benefits are great and the risk of infection is pretty low for most people,” explains Dr. Nirav Patel, chief medical officer at the University Medical Center, New Orleans. “People die every day from heart disease and going to the gym helps with that.”
“Is this helpful knowledge? Absolutely,” Dalman opined. “Should you stop working out? Absolutely not.”
“Wipe down the equipment using antibacterial wipes or sprays that gyms provide or use your own towel as a barrier,” Patel advised. Tetro adds that wounds should be properly covered before attending the gym. This would help the skin microbiota to do its job in preventing the colonization of foreign microbes. Wash your hands before you touch your face, says Tetro.
“Those general practices should keep you free from infection while at the gym,” assures Alexis Price, a senior infection specialist.
Tetro further adds that at least 10,000 bacterial cells are required to establish an infection. “Very rarely are you ever going to have the opportunity to pick up that much and put it in your mouth.”
But extra precautions are needed for viruses. “You only need a couple hundred of these germs to contract a virus,” Tetro warns. “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.”
This article was previously published in Microbial Instincts with minor modifications.