You may return from a strenuous workout feeling like death warmed up, but you certainly don’t go to gym wanting to get sick. Unfortunately, gyms are right up there with the worst when it comes to the amount of bacteria in them.

Think I’m exaggerating? A 2014 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found no less than 25 different categories of bacteria on exercise equipment, handrails, and toilet handles at four fitness centers in Memphis, Tennessee.

Research further showed that methicillin-resistant Staphyloccocus aureus (MRSA), which is highly resistant to multiple antibiotics, can live for literally days on exercise machines, mats, and locker-room benches.

It gets worse: in their study, fitness equipment review site FitRated found that gym free weights, for example, contain 362 times more bacteria than is found on a common toilet seat! The average exercise bike had 39 times more bacteria than that found on a reusable high school canteen tray – and that’s saying a lot!

What Exactly Are Bacteria?

Bacteria (singular: bacterium) are single-celled microorganisms that can exist either as independent (free-living) organisms or as parasites (i.e. dependent on another organism for life). Bacteria can range from the benign and good for us, such as Acidophilus, which can be found in yogurt, to the not so good: examples include Gonococcus which cause gonorrhoea or Clostridium welchii, which are the cause of gangrene.

What are the Worst Places in the Gym?

According to a 2010 CBS News report, the three “germiest” places at a gym are the showers, exercise mats, and exercise machines, especially all those machines and equipment that have handles. Good luck trying to avoid those places and spaces!

Humans Are Basically Bacterial Cesspools

You need to remember that humans are walking bacteria labs. Research shows that about one-third of people carry garden-variety staph bacteria – one in fifty harbor the nasty form known as MRSA.  So, yeah, little wonder your local gym is Bacteria Central.

 

The Dirty Ten:

Let’s take a look at the ten most typical bacteria that you can pick up at your local gym or other fitness location:

Furuncles and Carbuncles

These bacteria usually start off as tender areas that over several days can develop into a reddened nodular swelling. People often confuse them with  insect bites. They usually clear up by themselves or with a simple topical cream.

However, they can worsen when small pustules develop into larger pustules or even abscesses with even some localized tissue necrosis (dead tissue) forming. Clearly, you will need to see a doctor should that start to occur.

Impetigo

Impetigo (Impetigo contagiosa) is very contagious and is an itchy and sometimes painful infection of the outer layers of skin. Early signs of impetigo usually appear around the mouth and nose as an itchy reddish rash with liquid-filled blisters.

Impetigo is usually caused by Streptococcus or Staphylococcus bacteria. These bacteria can enter your skin through minor cuts or scrapes, a rash or an insect bite. The blisters usually crust up and eventually fall out.

Folliculitis

This bacterium is usually caught by sharing sweaty mats and not showering directly after the gym. It looks like back acne or chest acne.  Folliculitus causes the pimples to fill with pus on occasion.

A dermatologist will prescribe a few washes and you use that until it clears up. So, it’s more inconvenient and nasty-looking than seriously health-threatening. It can still be itchy as hell, though.

Psuedomonas aeruginosa

This bacterium, which thrives in swimming pools and hot tubs when levels of disinfectants such as chlorine are too low, causes what is known as hot tub rash. The same bug also causes swimmer’s ear, a common infection of the outer ear canal.

This rash typically starts as itchy spots in the swimsuit area that evolve into a bumpy red rash. Pus-filled blisters can also from around your hair follicles. When your rash lingers on your skin, See a doctor about prescribing antibiotic ointment. He or she will recommend the best course of treatment. 

Streptococcal bacteria

These are bacteria that usually cause upper respiratory infections, which is why it’s commonly called strep throat. There are 20 different types of strep bacteria. It is highly contagious and therefore spreads mega easily in public places such as gyms.

Symptoms can range from mild throat infections to pneumonia. Your immune system usually clears minor strep infections. However, more serious secondary infections like pneumonia and meningitis can arise from a strep infection and require hospitalization and intravenous antibiotics.

Klebsiella

This is a potentially nasty bacterium that is usually found in healthy human intestines and faeces. It spreads through any shared surfaces- such as cardio machines, workout mats, weights, water fountains, etc.

It can result in urinary tract infections and pneumonia, but even in more serious blood infections and meningitis. Some strains of klebsiella are antibiotic-resistant, but treatment should eventually be possible.

E. coli

Escherichia Coli, commonly known as E. coli, is a common bacterium found in the intestines and stool of animals. It can cause cramps, diarrhea, vomiting and can lead to pneumonia. You catch e. coli from improperly prepared food, but you also get it from tainted gym surfaces.

You can usually ride out an E. coli infection, although it can be hellish. However, if symptoms escalate, then you must immediately get to a hospital. E. coli has been known to kill people, especially children and the immune-compromised.

Staphylococcus aureus

Commonly known as staph, this is a bacterium that mostly causes skin infections such as superficial rashes, pimples and/or boils on your skin. Most cases of staph are fairly benign and require palliative treatment and rest.

However, if the bacteria spread and get deeper into your skin, then staph can become an extremely dangerous and even life-threatening infection such as pneumonia, sepsis, or meningitis.

Legionella

The legionella bacteria cause Legionnaires’ disease, a flu-like infection, which, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), can grow and multiply in various parts of a building’s water system, especially in warm water.

Showers and spas at large gyms in Orlando, Florida lacked enough hydrochlorinated solution and were the reason for outbreaks of Legionnaire’s. Most people recover from the infection, although it can result in death sometimes.

MRSA

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is the big, bad wolf of gym-loving bacteria. It may appear as a boil or pimples on exposed skin, such as the arms, legs, or back. You spread MRSA through contact with  a shared towel or razor, or exercise equipment surfaces.

MRSA is resistant to most antibiotics, which is what makes it so potentially dangerous. Therefore, if boil or pimples become very inflamed and grow rapidly, then you absolutely must have it checked out immediately. It really can kill.

Some Other Interesting Facts:

  • A study in The New England Journal of Medicine found that 42% of nasal swabs from professional football players tested positive for MRSA, even though the players did not have active infections.
  • Body shaving is actually a very bad idea. A 2004 study by Begier et al. found that there was an outbreak of MRSA among players on a college football team, facilitated by cosmetic body shaving. If you do shave your ‘tender areas’ then you are six times more likely to get MRSA than those who don’t. It’s the tiny micro-nicks in the skin that can make you vulnerable to bacterial infections.

What Can You Do At the Gym?

  • Beware machine handles: Dr Maryam Zamani of Cadogan Clinic recommends disinfecting the handles of machines or equipment used. If you can’t wash the machines then always wear clean work out gloves.
  • Beware weight stack levers: I bet you often wipe down areas such as seats and handle bars but almost never clean the weight stack lever that everyone touches each time they use the machine.
  • Beware the Weights: Free weights are ideal for hosting germs, used by multiple people, and yet are hardly ever cleaned. Try to disinfect them before use.
  • Stop Touching! Refrain as much as you can remember from touching your face during your workout.
  • Forget the Hand Towel: Wiping down equipment and surfaces with your little hand towel is a waste of time. It only removes sweat/moisture left by the previous user — it does nothing to eliminate microbes and can even spread them.
  • Avoid the Fountains: Research shows that more germs are found on and around drinking fountains than on toilets or in showers. The button used to activate the stream of water is especially putrid. Therefore, ALWAYS take your own water bottle to the gym.
  • Wash, wash, wash: Always wash your hands vigorously with soap and hot water after your workout – as in like someone with obsessive compulsive disorder.

What Can You Do At Home?

  • Separate: You should keep your clean clothes separate from your dirty gym gear. In fact, the ideal is to have two bags, one only for clean clothes, and the other for your dirty gym stuff.
  • Washable Gym Bag: Better yet, try to use a mesh bag as a gym bag which can be easily thrown in the washer. If you can’t wash your bag then swab the inside with a solution made from one part bleach and 10 parts water.
  • Eat healthier: Eat to support your immunity. Feast on antioxidants A, C and E, including sweet potatoes, butternut squash, leafy greens and/or oily fish with some spinach, mango, apple or avocado, as well as sunflower seeds or almonds.
  • Boost Your Immunity: Tiredness and stress compromise immunity, so get as much good quality zinc and vitamin C as you can. Squeeze some fresh lemon juice into your gym water to give you a healthy added boost.

The Bottom Line:

Steven M. Zinder, a trainer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said it simplest and best:

“It’s what we all learned — or should have learned — in sixth-grade health class. It’s all common sense. You need to keep yourself and your equipment clean. You never know who last used the equipment in a gym.”

Simple yet wise words indeed – the trick is for you and me to remember all of these things every time we go to gym. It’s either that or become another statistic of Bacteria Central.