Whether it’s because summer is approaching, you’ve embarked on a New Year’s Resolution, or you are just someone who loves fitness and hitting the gym on a regular basis, you’ve probably questioned the sanitary status of your favorite piece of equipment. We all assume that the gym isn’t the most hygienic of places, and are not so naive as to think that the cleaning sprays provided do much against the sweat, sneezing, and wheezing of our fellow gym-goers.

Fitrated review website, in partnership with EmLab P&K, decided it was time to put our favorite gym equipment to the test and find out just how unhygienic the gym really is. Turns out the result is worse than we think.

Gym Sanitation: How Dirty is that Downward Dog?

Fitrated went around three different gyms collecting swab samples from 3 pieces of each of the most popular equipment:

  • Treadmills
  • Spin Bikes
  • Free Weights

They then gave the samples over to EmLabs P&K to study the number of colony forming units (CFUs), or potential bacterial cells. The results that came in were quite alarming:

Over 1 million germs per square inch per piece of equipment!

The Worst Offenders

The treadmill had the highest number of CFUs, with the bike in close second and the free weights coming in third. All equipment had exponentially higher amounts of CFUs than public toilets and cafeteria trays.

Treadmill 1, 333, 432 CFU 74X more bacteria than a public toilet
Spin Bike 1, 333, 418 CFU 39X more bacteria than a cafeteria tray
Free Weights 1, 158, 381 CFU 362X more bacteria than a public toilet seat

Feeling squeamish yet? There’s more: Fitrated examined the type of bacteria found in each sample and found that these bugs are even worse than thought.

Type of Bacteria Found on Gym Equipment

According to Fitrated, over seventy percent of the bacteria found at the gym is potentially harmful to humans. The types found were:

  • Gram Positive Cocci, 41%
    Not only do these germs cause pneumonia and septicemia, but they are also the most common cause of skin infections. Bad news for anyone with open cuts or even hangnails. 
  • Gram Negative Rods, 31%
    The worst of the bunch, nearly all gram-negative rod bacteria are harmful to humans and are the most prone to becoming resistant to antibiotics.
  • Gram-Positive Rods, 14%
    Typically gram-positive rods aren’t harmful to humans, however, as always there are exceptions to every rule.
  • Bacillus, 14%
    With the capability to be both good and bad, bacillus bacteria are found all throughout nature, though are in highest concentrations in soil.

Good and Bad News

According to Canadian Microbiologist Jason Tetro, this study shouldn’t make you throw in the towel right away.

“Remember, only about .1 percent of all the microbial species that are out there that are bacterial are remotely pathogenic. The rest are environment, or what we call human flora – they’re just part of who we are.” Tetro stated in an interview with CBC news.

Tetro states that to actually get sick from the bacteria found on equipment, seats, and handrails at the gym, you have to be exposed to a large number of them. The likelihood of this happening is not very high, provided you don’t go around licking the equipment or your hands.

He does remind us, however, that there are plenty of germs and bacteria to be aware of at the gym, just like any public space. Depending on how well and how often other gym members wash their hands, there could be the presence of items such as fecal matter, or staphylococcus aureus, on various surfaces. This can lead to illness and infection.

How to Minimize Exposure to Bacteria at the Gym

According to Tetro, the worst offender for lack of gym sanitation isn’t any of the equipment in the study at all: It’s your gym mat.

“Yoga mats, gym mats and any kind of mats because they have this porosity to them so the microbes can actually get in and start growing biofilms inside the little holes — and when people are disinfecting them, spray it a little and do a quick wipe down.”

Tetro says that if you actually want to successfully disinfect a gym or yoga mat, you must follow these steps:

  1. Make the mat completely soaking wet, not just a quick spray.
  2. Let it sit like that for 15 seconds
  3. Wipe it off with a clean towel or disposable paper towel.

The same goes for every other piece of equipment that you use at the gym. Spray it down thoroughly, let it sit for 15 seconds, and then wipe it off with a clean or paper towel.

10 Ways to minimize exposure to germs at the gym

There are plenty of ways to decrease the chance of your daily workout making you sick. While some, such as the proper method of cleaning your mat or other equipment, are lesser known, many come down to common sense. Some suggestions to keep nasty gym germs at bay are:

  1. Shower before and after each workout.
  2. Don’t touch your face during your workout.
  3. If you have any cuts or scrapes, be sure to fully clean and cover them before and after your gym session.
  4. Wash your hands before and after each workout.
  5. Wash your gym clothes, bags, and other equipment frequently.
  6. Wear sandals or flip-flops in the locker room and showers.
  7. Bring your own (freshly laundered) towel.
  8. Purchase multiple reusable water bottles. Wash them often and rotate them so that you always have a clean one ready to go.
  9. Avoid the gym fountain if you can.
  10. If you are sick or are really worried about catching a cold from someone else, check out these fantastic at-home workouts to avoid communal spaces and equipment.

The Bottom Line

Fear of contracting an illness or infection shouldn’t stop you from getting in your daily dose of fitness or make you reconsider your gym membership. Tetro states that while studies like this do a good job at reminding people to take extra precaution, they are non-specific (they never actually specify which bacteria they found, for instance) and therefore should not cause mass panic. When the proper steps are taken to clean ourselves and our equipment, the gym can and will remain the health-centered place that it is intended to be.