Gyms and germs: What you need to know to stay healthy

By Liz Meszaros
Published March 6, 2020

Key Takeaways

Should you worry about germs at the gym? With the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) seemingly on the verge of becoming an official pandemic, infection control measures are of utmost importance these days. But, it’s probably not coronavirus you need to worry about. Pathogens like Staphylococcus and various odd and assorted fungi and viruses are always lurking at any gym. But, there are steps you can take to protect yourself, and they are part of what is considered “gym etiquette.”

Physicians, this is an excellent time to put your infectious disease training to good use. Infection control measures are handy to have when you are dealing with outbreaks like COVID-19, flu, or even SARS. Especially in the gym, where hygiene and infectious disease control, while not widely practiced, seem to be a concern for many.

Indeed, proper gym etiquette—including good hygiene practices—seems to be the biggest bugaboo of over 1,000 gym-users, according to a recent survey from Treadmill Reviews. And, results also show that gym-users are not very good at following proper gym etiquette, which includes wiping down equipment after each use.

In fact, 35% of men reported that they never wiped down weight machines after using them. Among women, over 25% admitted to never wiping down cardio equipment. Finally, 38.4% of gym-users reported not wiping down equipment in the afternoon, and 21.2% did not do so in the evening. What’s more, over 50% of gym-users have seen others not wash their hands in the bathroom and then go out and use gym equipment.

Frankly, that’s a lot of germs. And here are a few of the pathogens that are probably prospering—or trying to—in any given gym, at any given moment:

Staphylococcus and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). These two baddies love gym equipment and can thrive there. Here are some of the steps to take to protect yourself:

  • Cover any open wounds before you start exercising. Don’t touch your face after you have touched any surface, particularly commonly used ones, like door or locker handles, and fitness equipment.

  • After exercising, take a shower with soap (preferably antimicrobial) to remove any germs that may be on your skin.

  • Wash and dry your gym clothes regularly; don’t just leave them in your duffel bag until your next workout, which could be days away.

Dermatophytes. Dermatophytes can cause all sorts of problems, including athlete’s food, jock itch, and ringworm. They include Tinea barbae, T. capitis, T. corporis, T. cruris, T. manuum, T. pedis, and T. unguium. Unfortunately, dermatophytes love a locker room environment, which can be moist, damp, and wet—the perfect conditions for flourishing dermatophytes. Some rules to help prevent transmission of these pathogens include the following:

  • Opt for moisture-wicking materials for your clothes and even shoes. This helps the sweat evaporate and reduces chances of causing a moist, wet environment.

  • Don’t walk across the gym floor barefooted or even in your socks. You are just asking for fungi to hop on board and come home with you.

  • Wear flips-flops in the locker room and the shower.

  • Don’t sit on any benches without clothes on.

  • Always change out of your sweaty clothes when you get home. Air them out and wash them.

  • Try to rotate your sneakers frequently. They can get pretty sweaty and need a chance to air out. Better yet, throw them in the wash occasionally, or put them outside in the sun to discourage proliferation of all those dermatophytes you may have picked up in the gym.


A lot of viruses can take up residence in a gym, including HPV, herpes gladiatorum, and airborne respiratory viruses. Here are a few rules to follow to avoid transmission:

  • Don’t go to the gym when you’re sick. Conversely, when you see people who are visibly sick at the gym, try to go to the opposite side of the room. Don’t use the equipment they use, or clean them thoroughly before using.

  • Wash your hands often. Remember that things like doorknobs, touchpads, cell phones, locker handles, and locks can all carry germs. Wash your hands after you touch any of these, and don’t touch your face.

Dirtiest places

The sheer number of people who go to the gym and use the equipment make gyms one of the dirtiest places you frequent. Here is a list of some of the dirtiest things there:

Free weights, weight machines, and exercise balls. Because a lot of (sweaty) people handle these pieces of equipment day in and day out, they are among the dirtiest things you’ll find in a gym. Try to wipe down these exercise tools with disinfectant both before and after you use them. If you can’t find sanitizing wipes or antibacterial spray ask the gym staff or carry antibacterial gel with you and rub your hands before and after your workout.

Treadmills, ellipticals, spinning bikes. People are more likely to wipe down these pieces of equipment than free weights, but they are still not clean. Some researchers have even found Staphylococcus, fungi, and yeast on the seats of gym bikes. Wipe these machines and seats with disinfectant before and after each use.

Pool. Cryptosporidium is chlorine-resistant and causes most of the outbreaks of pool-related diarrhea, according to the CDC. Pseudomonas—which can cause well-known conditions such as swimmer’s ear and hot tub rash—can also be present in a pool. Gyms should post details of pool upkeep, including a cleaning schedule . Check the listings. And also check the smell: When chlorine interacts with microorganisms, it generates a stronger smell. A good rule of thumb to follow: The stronger the chlorine smell, the dirtier the pool. Always wear goggles and a swimming cap or earplugs.

Shower. Try to avoid the shower at the gym at all costs. It’s most likely full of fungi and other pathogens that can cause infections. Shower at home as soon as possible after a workout. If you do shower at the gym, wear flipflops and use antimicrobial soap. Do not shave in a gym shower. You could nick yourself, opening a door—so to speak—for the bacteria and pathogens to enter.

Gym bag. Don’t forget that your gym bag can also be a major source of germs. Every time you put your bag on a bench, in a locker, or on the floor, disease-causing microbes could hitch a ride and travel home with you. Staphylococcus, Salmonella, Escherichia coli, and Pseudomonas are the most common hitchhikers. Here are some tips to follow for proper gym bag hygiene:

  • Be cognizant of the cleanliness—or lack thereof—of the surfaces your bag comes in contact with. For example, don’t put it on the floor in the lavatory, or near the showers. Germs are likely to hitch a ride.

  • Choose a bag that’s vinyl or plastic. Germs and bacteria don’t like these materials and are less likely to adhere to them.

  • Keep dirty clothes and shoes in a separate compartment to avoid further proliferation of any pathogens you may have picked up during your workout.

  • When you get home, empty your gym bag after every visit. Wipe the inside and outside with disinfectant wipes.

  • If you have a cloth or canvas bag, toss it in the wash every week. Use hot water and a bleach- or peroxide-based detergent. Dry for at least 45 minutes.

By all means, don’t let germs keep you from your workout. Just be vigilant and take precautions to protect yourself and those around you. Remember: good infection control practices aren’t just for when you’re coming in contact with patients.

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