When the pandemic first began to ease up a bit, and gyms reopened their doors to eager fitness enthusiasts, it was obvious just how imperative it was to wipe down every piece of gym equipment after you used it. No one wanted to share germs, and we’d all become super conscious of doing what we could not to leave our droplets behind.
Now that it’s been a while since life has begun to feel more normal, though, gymgoers everywhere are noticing that more and more people slacking on the post-use equipment care. Which begs the question: How gross is it really to not wipe down shared gym equipment? To find out, we chatted with two germ-oriented experts: family medicine physician Marjan Johnson, MD, and Patty Olinger, the executive director of the Global Biorisk Advisory Council on behalf of rethinkclean.org and ISSA, The Worldwide Cleaning Industry Association.
What germs can linger on gym equipment?
Even though it’s been screamed from the rooftops, not everyone washes their hands. And even those who do might not do it thoroughly enough or for long enough to rid their hands of every germ. Additionally, as humans, we breathe—and our breath can also harbor germs. With this in mind, Olinger says that it’s important to be mindful of both touch points and air quality when stepping into a gym. “We can see a variety of common germs on gym surfaces, which include everything from flu, strep, and staph, to COVID and RSV,” she says.
Dr. Johnson adds that staph is particularly common in gyms. “This bacteria is spread by direct skin contact and can dwell on different gym equipment that comes in touch with the skin, including weights, mats, bikes, and the like,” she says. “The more dangerous and contagious form of staph is methicillin-resistant staph aureus aka MRSA.” And MRSA can stick around on shared gym equipment as well as in changing rooms.
While less likely on the gym floor, Dr. Johnson says that fungi can be prevalent in the bathrooms. “One that comes to mind is athlete’s foot, caused by various types of fungi found in swimming pools, changing rooms, mats, and other places where walking barefoot is standard,” she says. Because of this, Dr. Johnson says to never shower or walk in a common area barefoot.
Speaking of mats, fungus can thrive in moist environments, so if you’re using sweaty communal yoga mats that haven’t been thoroughly wiped down, you could be at risk. “Ringworm is the form of this fungus that occurs on the body,” Dr. Johnson says, noting that sprawling on a mat could cause a contraction.
As far as viruses, Dr. Johnson says there’s also HPV, which can cause warts. She says, “Warts are pesky and can travel not only to others but also to various parts of the body, even though they tend to reside on the feet and hands.”
While many gyms have air filtration systems—and there’s always the option to wear a well-fitting mask—another option is to head to the gym with your own personal purifier, which Dyson has made possible with its latest innovation, launching in January 2023. The Dyson Zone ($949) headphones combine advanced noise canceling, up to 50 hours of ultra-low distortion audio, and, yes, air purification, thanks to a detachable chin strap-inspired visor that dispels purified air to your nose and mouth. Admittedly, these headphones look wild, and they’re not cheap, but if air quality and good sound are of the utmost importance to you, they might worth looking into.
Which pieces of equipment harbor the most germs?
While all surfaces can harbor germs, Olinger says that those that are porous (think: yoga mats, rubber flooring, and medicine balls) tend to be hardest to clean, so they generally present more of a transfer hazard. “Before you sit down to do sit-ups on a mat, grab a spray and wipe it down (or use a disinfecting wipe), and make sure to thoroughly wash your hands following your workout,” she encourages.
How long does it take for bacteria to grow on equipment?
There’s no single hard-and-fast answer here. “It depends on the equipment, and the conditions of the facility,” Olinger says. “For example, many germs grow in warmer temperatures, so areas such as steam rooms, showers, and hot yoga studios can contain different sets of germs than those in the main area of the gym.”
So what should you do?
Even with health-focused protocols in place, germs are just about everywhere in gyms. “Not all microbes are bad and our bodies are covered by them—they also live inside us and are really important to our bodies,” Johnson says. “However, the important thing is staying protected from ones that can cause infection.”
In addition to being mindful of gym equipment hygiene, Olinger says to think about personal hygiene, too. Namely, don’t touch your face. “While working out, many people tend to touch their face to wipe away sweat,” she says. “If you’ve just been touching equipment, or sitting down on a mat for sit-ups, you can easily transfer those germs to your nose, eyes, and mouth.”
If you’re worried about how much you absentmindedly touch your face, keep a bottle of gentle-yet-effective hand sanitizer on hand. We love the Touchland Power Mist ($10), which is sold in 14 scents and comes in a convenient slim square bottle that makes it easy to put in your pocket or bag.
And remember: Even if you just saw someone wipe down the equipment, it never hurts to do a follow-up.