For some, this simple fact is reason enough to avoid the gym altogether, but don’t let germs scare you away. Your health is important. So, what’s one to do?
Almost all gyms today provide antibacterial wipes for members to wipe down gym equipment as they see fit. These are just basic antibacterial wipes that are effective against most bacteria. At first blush, I was under the common impression that yes, the wipes in the gym are all you need to kill bacteria and viruses. Sweaty bench? Wipe it off with a wipe and it’s good as new, right? Spin class bike still carry that sheen of sweat from the previous rider? Wipe it off and you’re in the clear, right? As I dug a little deeper I found the answer to be a little more complicated that I had thought.
Walk down the cleaning aisle in your local supermarket and you’ll find plenty of cleaning wipes designated antibacterial. Look closer at the label and you’ll see that more often than not 99.99% of germs can be expected to eliminated. And that sounds great, doesn’t it? After all, nothing’s perfect and 99.99% sounds pretty darn good. And it is good.
Unfortunately, the world is filled with so much more than just bacteria. Viruses, for instance, are a whole different animal. Firstly, what about the flu virus, influenza? Or how about the family of viral agents that cause what we are all familiar with at one point or another, the common cold – rhinovirus?
During the flu season the influenza virus is all over the place. If you work in an office environment you’ll know exactly when the flu season begins by the cacophony of coughs and sneezes among the cubicles. So what about the gym? Well, good news and bad news. The good news is that the flu virus is relatively weak outside the body and especially weak on soft surfaces such as gym towels. The soft and porous fibers of a towel are believed to only support the virus for a matter of minutes, not hours or days like hard surfaces. Here comes the bad news, and this won’t come as a surprise: That most everything in a gym is a hard surface and prone to supporting a germy germ like the flu. But before you run to the store to buy a spray bottle of disinfectant to throw in your gym bag, consider this: The flu virus is transmitted primarily from person to person. For instance, not covering your mouth when you cough will transfer influenza more effectively than any dumbbell or yoga mat. “There may be some transmission of flu through things like tabletops and doorknobs, but it plays a very minimal role,” says William Schaffner, MD, chairman of the department of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University’s School of Medicine in Nashville(1).
What about rhinovirus? Well, it’s about the same story. The virus is unlikely to be around for more than a day on a hard surface like steel(3). So it seems that you are more likely to catch a cold by chatting by the water cooler at the office than you are handling fit balls and barbells. A basic antibacterial wipe may be great against bacteria, but unless it has disinfectant properties it may not combat the dirty little germs that we really want to avoid. The CDC speculates that some wipes may indeed combat against influenza on surfaces, but there is still the issue of contact time. You see, any cleaning product requires some amount of contact time to do its job. Chlorine bleach, for instance, still requires 30 minutes of contact time to kill bacteria(2)!
Well, here we are on the slippery slope of a debate on germs. Do we sterilize the world around us to keep our immune systems humming along? Or, do we believe that some germs are necessary in the sense that they keep our bodies healthy(2)?. If you need a refresher on the topic, here’s a great article from the New York Times earlier this year that provides a nice overview of all the bacteria already in you.
So, where does this leave us? We know that the gym is a nice warm place with hard surfaces for bacteria, viruses, and fungi to survive. As discussed above, it’s becoming clear that we can’t expect antibacterial wipes to completely sterilize every piece of equipment we may want to use for our workouts. Plus, the contact time is probably shorter than needed to adequately clean a surface.
Nevertheless, it’s a smart idea to use whatever wipes are available to you to wipe down gym equipment. It’ll certainly be cleaner than if you hadn’t wiped it down. Also, when choosing a gym, ask about their cleaning schedule. Do they clean daily? They should. Walk around the gym floor and yoga room and check to make sure things look as though they are maintained.
However, what if you don’t have access to antibacterial wipes in your gym or health club and decided that you want to do something about germs and that sweaty bench. If this is the case, then you have a couple of options. Firstly, you could just buy a spray bottle of disinfectant and you’re ready to go. On the other hand, you could go all DIY and use white vinegar. Mixing a simple 50/50 solution of white vinegar serves as a decent cleaner. Pretty economical too.
Here are some additional tips to avoid bringing germs home with you:
1. Try not to touch anything above your neck while working out. Germs can easily enter the body through the eyes, mouth and nose. So each time you set down that kettlebell and rub your eyes you’re setting yourself up for an infection later on. It may take some time to get into the habit, but train yourself to be very cognizant of what you touch (and don’t touch!) while at a public gym.
2. Make sure that you don’t have any exposed cuts that may come into contact with a germy surface. What may seem like a minor scrape is just another way for a bacteria or virus to enter the body. “Open cuts and scratches aren’t the only entryway for troublesome germs,” says UC sports dermatologist Brian Adams, MD. “Abrasions – for example, caused by friction against fitness mats and hand weights – and blisters from the constant rubbing of athletic shoes can break down skin’s ‘castle wall’ and allow microorganisms to invade the body”(4).
3. Immediately after your workout head straight for the sink and wash your hands with soap and water. Your hands are going to get dirty in the gym and that’s OK, but it becomes a problem when you take those dirty hands home with you.
4. Be sure to wash your gym towel often. Many gyms today provide towels as a service, but most public gyms do not. So if you are bringing a towel from home be sure to wash it regularly. It may be your personal towel, but it will be coming into contact with a whole lot of dirty surfaces during your workout.
Yes, gyms can be germy, but don’t let that scare you away from taking positive steps to preserve your health. Wipes will help, so use them when you deem necessary. Above all, common sense like not touching your nose or eyes after coming into contact with gym equipment is just plain good practice to avoid getting sick.
by Ryan Wagner