Gym Germs and How to Avoid Them

There are two times of the year when gym memberships pick up: Right after New Year’s, and a couple months later when people start thinking about working on their “beach bodies.” (Not to mention when people start using tanning beds.)

All in all, going to the gym is better than not going when it comes to staying healthy – so long as you don’t get grabbed by some grubby germs hanging out in the sweat-filled cracks and crevices hiding around the place. Catching a cold – or something worse… – at the gym can totally set you back, so it’s good to know where those problem places are and how you can stay away from them.

Weight Machine Adjustment Pins

Every gym has the rule that users need to wipe down equipment after using it. For most people, that means a quick swipe on the seat or pad where they sat or rested their backs, hopefully with some kind of disinfectant.

But how many people clean the small pins used to change the weight on a machine? Everybody touches those little pins, but being small and out of the way, almost nobody thinks to wipe them after use.

How to Avoid: If you use weight machines, you can’t really avoid touching the pins. However, you can make a habit of wiping those pins down before you use them. You’ll still have to wipe them down afterword, as well, but you can consider that your good deed for the day, paying it forward to the next person who comes along. If you want to be extra careful, bring your own travel-size packet of disinfectant wipes to carry with you, instead of using the towels and spray at the gym.

Free Weights

While people are generally trained to wipe down the weight machines (except the pins), fewer people think to wipe down the handles of dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells, weight plates, medicine balls, and other free weight equipment. People tend to believe – erroneously – that their own hands are clean. Also, a lot of people wear gloves when using free weights, which they think will help protect them.

The truth? Studies have shown free weights tend to have greater than 300 times more germs than a toilet seat. These germs don’t just magically appear out of nowhere: They come from the hands of everyone who uses those weights and fails to clean them afterward. Your piddly little lifting gloves might pad your palms, but they aren’t going to prevent germs from transferring between handle and hands.

How to Avoid: Set a good example and start wiping down every piece of equipment you use, including free weights. It might feel like a losing battle, but if you set a good example, perhaps others will follow. As with the adjustment pins, wiping them both before and after is a good idea, and keeping your own travel pack of disinfectant wipes handy is a great idea.

Water Fountains

Water fountains are like tropical resorts for a bevy of germs: E. coli, legionella, coliform, and many others. Combine that with the fact that people at the gym tend to sweat, spit, and spew backwash into the fountain, and you’ve got a tailor-made germ factory.

In fact, one study even found that there are more germs on water fountains than in some toilets. How that can even be possible is probably something you don’t want to even start thinking about – better to let sleeping germs lie!

How to Avoid: The easiest solution is to bring your own bottle of water from home. It doesn’t have to be an expensive and environmentally unfriendly bottle of store-bought water; if you go to the gym regularly, invest in a BPA-free bottle and use filtered water, and make sure the bottle is big enough for your entire workout. (Don’t refill from the fountain, as that negates the value of bringing your own in the first place.) In a pinch, most gyms sell bottles of water and sports drinks, though prices tend to be on the higher side.

Saunas, Showers and Locker Rooms

When people think of germ gestation, one of the first places they think about is the bathroom. Locker rooms at the gym, which combine all the functions of showering, shaving, and sitting on toilet seats, can obviously be problematic when it comes to staying germ-free.

The good news is that because people know about bathrooms as problem places for spreading sickness, they tend to be cleaned well at least once daily. If nothing else, health regulations and inspections keep health club owners in line here. Still, there are problem places in saunas, showers, and locker rooms that might not get as much attention as others, such as handles on locker doors, bathroom stalls, and showers.

How to Avoid: You could skip the locker room altogether and shower at home after your workout, but for many people that isn’t feasible, especially if you go to the gym before work or otherwise heading out for the day. When using locker room facilities, the best thing to do is to stay covered as much as possible. This has nothing to do with modesty, but is more about providing a layer of protection between your body and germy surfaces. Don’t sit your bare anatomy on the sauna bench – make sure there’s a towel underneath you! Same with your feet; keep a pair of cheap shower sandals in your bag. Anything you can do to prevent direct contact with dirty surfaces will help immensely.

Don’t Let “Health Club” Be Ironic

In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need to worry about germs in the gym: everything would be clean and microbe-free. Since we don’t live in that world, however, we need to take some measures to keep ourselves and those around us protected from unnecessary illnesses.

That said, don’t settle for a “health club” that is clearly deficient in the cleanliness category. If you find things are consistently dirty, wet, or otherwise potentially unhealthy, talk to management. If they fail to address your concerns, tell them you will leave. You can even complain to your local health agency to let them know about the issues you’ve seen.

All in all, it’s up to you to protect your health. Working out is important, but don’t be penny-wise and pound-foolish when it comes to the gym. And remember, you can always get a great workout by going outside instead of paying for a membership!