These Are the Germiest Places in the Gym

The coronavirus has probably raised your anti-germ game already. But it’s not the only pathogen to think about in the gym. When you know where germs hide, you’re well on your way to avoiding those germs at the gym. Here’s what’s really nasty, what’s really not, and where you probably could clean up your gym hygiene a little.

How Gross Is The Water Fountain?

Dicey enough that you’ll want to let the water run a bit before you sip, says Michael Schmidt, Ph.D., a microbiologist at the Medical University of South Carolina. If there’s a refillable-bottle option, use that.

But if you use your own bottle, you have to wash it with soap and water every day. Bacteria from lips and hands multiply like crazy in there, especially if there’s residue from sugar- or protein-rich drinks, says Kelly Reynolds, Ph.D., a health-risk researcher at the University of Arizona.

How Gross Is Your Sweat?

Fairly gross. From a decency perspective, it’s gross to sweat on shared equipment (and the floor, for that matter) at the gym. From a health standpoint, it doesn’t matter if it’s yours or someone else’s—sweat helps transfer bacteria and viruses from one spot to another.

When sweat is added, any surface at the gym that’s already dirty basically becomes a live petri dish full of nasty bugs. Just remember: Drying isn’t the same as disinfecting. Use the antibacterial spray or gym wipes before you put your towel down.

How Gross Is the Equipment?

Worse than you’d expect. Kent State researchers who swabbed 16 different gyms found that nearly 40 percent of all surfaces harbored staph, a bacteria that can cause serious infections. Most likely to be germy: the medicine ball, which clocked hot at nearly twice that percentage, according to Mark Dalman, Ph.D., lead researcher on that study. Other studies have found salmonella and MRSA lurking on everything from treadmills to free weights and benches. Protect against them by covering cuts and wiping your eyes, nose, and mouth with a clean towel, not your filthy hands. And wipe down the equipment before using.

How Gross Are the Showers?

Pretty bad. It’s a simple law of nature: Anywhere that’s moist and warm breeds bacteria, says podiatrist Lee Cohen, D.P.M. But in shared showers, your feet risk the biggest hit. The virus that causes plantar warts is highly contagious if you have any abrasions, as are notoriously hard-to-cure toenail fungus and athlete’s foot. There’s no excuse not to wear shower shoes and wash your feet. (And clean your shower shoes from time to time, too.)

How Gross Is That Energy Bar You Just Dropped?

Extremely. The five-second rule doesn’t apply to wet and sticky foods. They pick up germs easier than dry ones, says Schmidt, and eating them after they’ve been dropped increases your odds of getting sick. Plus, more people in the gym means more germs on the floor. “If you drop a PowerBar in the gym,” he says, “it’s not going in your mouth.”

How Gross Is Old Workout Gear?

Not the worst, but the sniff test will fail you. Heat liberates odors, so what seemed innocuous in the locker room might go full stench once you’re sweating. Dirty clothes won’t kill you but can wreck your skin (and the workout of the person next to you). Dirt and oil can get trapped in wet fabric and may lead to clogged pores (bacne); bacteria in there can cause itchy rashes like folliculitis, says dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, M.D., of Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Seriously, just bring new gear.

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