Hitting the gym can help you stay fit, but you could end up getting more than just an endorphin rush — sharing gym equipment can also put you in close contact with bacteria (like staphylococcus), viruses (like the flu), and fungi (like athlete’s foot and ringworm).
And while that’s true of many public places — from subways to public pools — gyms present unique germ-prevention challenges.
“A gym is more of a risk than, say, a grocery store, because a gym has more high-touch surfaces and therefore more potential for transmitting organisms,” says Lisa Maragakis, MD, MPH, an associate professor of medicine and epidemiology for the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and senior director of infection prevention for Johns Hopkins Hospital.
But there are a few steps you can take to avoid picking up germs at the gym. Here’s how to stay healthy during your next sweat session.
1. Wash your hands before and after your workout.
This is one of the easiest ways to limit your chances of succumbing to germs at the gym. “The majority of infectious diseases are spread by touch,” says Kenton Fibel, MD, a family medicine physician specializing in sports medicine at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles, California. “Whether you’re using free weights, the stationary bike, the treadmill, or a fitness class, be sure to wash your hands before and after working out — or use hand sanitizer as needed to keep your hands clean and free of germs.”
2. Wipe down machines before and after use.
Studies have found that some germs can live on hard surfaces for almost two weeks. The good news: Most gyms provide disinfectant wipes — and wiping down your equipment really does help. “Typically, the types of bacteria we see in a gym are not difficult to kill with a disinfectant wipe,” Maragakis says. The key is to use them before and after you use a particular piece of equipment to prevent catching or spreading germs — and that includes not only cardio machines, but also weights, benches, and mats.
3. Bring your own water bottle.
Toting your favorite reusable water bottles to the gym isn’t just good for the environment — it also limits your interaction with the communal water fountain, a high-contact spot that can harbor skin bacteria as well as viruses like influenza and norovirus. (If you forget your water bottle, pressing the button with your elbow or a towel may help, although you can still potentially pick up germs from the spout.)
4. Don’t touch your face.
A 2015 study found that participants touched their face an average of 23 times per hour — and at least 44 percent of those “touches” involved contact with a mucous membrane such as the eyes, nose, or mouth. And when you’re mid-workout, touching those mucous membranes is like providing a direct highway for germs from the treadmill to your body. So be mindful about avoiding contact with your eyes, nose, or mouth until after you’ve washed your hands post-workout, Fibel says.
5. Use your own yoga mat.
Porous surfaces at the gym — like yoga mats, foam rollers, and any equipment with soft handles — can be tricky to disinfect. “If it’s not a wipeable surface, it’s really hard to clean with a disinfectant wipe,” explains Maragakis. Your best bet: Bring your own yoga mat to class if possible, and cover any soft surfaces completely with a towel.
6. Avoid going barefoot.
“One of the easiest ways to pick up fungus on your feet and in your toenails is by stepping on it,” says Tsippora Shainhouse, MD, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist in Los Angeles. Going barefoot in the gym locker room, sauna, or shower can lead to fungal infections like athlete’s foot or toenail fungus. Prevent contact with these pathogens by wearing sandals or shower shoes — or by showering at home.
7. Launder your gym clothes — and your bag.
If you tend to stash your sweaty workout clothes in a locker or bag, you’re giving any stray germs you picked up an ideal breeding ground. “Damp fabric grows germs,” says Al Johnson, DO, a doctor of internal medicine and women’s health at Johnson Medical Associates in Richardson, Texas. “Wear only clean workout clothes, and launder them after workouts as soon as possible.” And this goes for your gym bag too — toss cotton or nylon gym bags in the washer to disinfect them.