9 Tips to Help Minimize Getting Sick from the Gym or Studio

Janet Tiberian Author
By Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES
April 18, 2024
Wiping down bench in fitness center

Joining a fitness center is probably the easiest, most convenient way to get a well-rounded workout. But exercisers sneeze, cough and breath hard (expelling airborne droplets of germs), leaving most gyms and studios teeming with bacteria and viruses. In fact, the average treadmill, exercise bike and free weight can have more than 1 million germs per square inch apiece, according to a study conducted by FitRated. And some of the germs can cause staphylococcus, ringworm and MRSA infections. 

Typically, fitness center employees disinfect equipment, mop floors and clean studios whenever possible. But it’s impossible to clean during peak hours. Even if employees could, cleaning and disinfecting clears some germs, it won’t sterilize equipment. And since germs can linger longer on non-porous surfaces, they can last on equipment for hours, sometimes even days. Here are a few examples:

  • Flu germs can last eight hours.
  • Cold germs can last seven days.
  • Coronavirus germs can last nine days

But don’t let this put you off a gym workout. First, you have lots of protections against these germs built in. Your skin functions as a barrier to help protect you from germs, including the 1.5 trillion bacteria already living on your skin. The risk for getting sick increases if you have an open sore that’s exposed to a potentially dangerous germ and/or if you touch your face, particularly your eyes, nose or mouth, which serves as an entryway for germs. 

Second, exercise is critically important to your overall health. While you may be exposed to germs at the gym, you’ll benefit a lot more from working out than your risk for catching the odd cold — and you can reduce your risk for those bugs by understanding where germs lurk and what you can do about it. 

Here are common sections of a fitness center and hygienic challenges they can cause: 
Free weight area – has barbells and dumbbells. At busy gyms, hundreds of people handle these pieces of equipment every day, making the free weight area one of the dirtiest sections of a gym. Most free weights have 362 times more germs than a toilet seat, as reported by FitRated. 

Functional fitness area – has battle ropes, plyo boxes, medicine balls, kettlebells, power plates and kinesis machines. Like the free weight area, hundreds of people can touching the equipment during a week. But there’s an aerobic exercise component to functional fitness, which means sweating. Generally, sweat doesn’t carry germs unless it passes over an open cut or infection; however, sweaty, damp conditions are conducive for bacterial growth. The floors in many functional fitness areas are covered in artificial turf, which help prevent slip and falls, eases pressure on exerciser’s joints and absorbs the shock associated with lifting heavy weights. However, the turf can be a breeding ground for bacterial and viral germs.

Resistance machines area – has selectorized machines and occasionally cable machines. Like free weights, these pieces of equipment also are handled by hundreds of people.   

Cardio area – has treadmills, ellipticals, rowers, steppers and bikes. Treadmills -- popular equipment in most gyms – carries the highest number of bacteria, i.e., 79 times more bacteria than a water faucet. Keep in mind, cardio equipment is like functional equipment in that it’s high touch and high sweat. Bikes, including those in indoor cycling studios, have porous handlebars and seats that can accumulate about 39 times more bacteria than a cafeteria tray. Which piece of equipment has the lowest number of bacteria? Ellipticals. Exercisers tend to have less contact with ellipticals than they do with other cardio equipment, and they’re easy to clean. 

Stretching areas and studios within a fitness center (as well as private studios) – uses the floor and has mats, yoga blocks, stability balls, bands, tubing, BOSUs and Pilates equipment. Gym floors are notoriously dirty, accumulating grime from shoes, dripped sweat and airborne germs including bacillota, proteobacteria, salmonella and staphylococcus, according to a study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research Public Health. Mats are known for housing fungi, viruses and bacteria. But any soft equipment shared by a community also collect germs, leaving you vulnerable. And Pilates equipment is just as susceptible to germs as resistance training equipment is.      

Steam room – has a wet floor and wet wooden bench(es). Warm, wet climates such as those in steam rooms harbor germs that can cause athletes’ foot and other fungal infections. 

Sauna – uses dry heat provided by wood or electricity so it tends to be less a haven for bacteria than a steam room. However, a risk for infections still exists if the sauna is not used on regular basis. An infrequently used sauna can breed germs.      

Locker room – has a floor, showers, faucets and water fountains which have been linked to athletes’ foot, ringworm, streptococcal, yeast infections and impetigo. And when personal items like razors and towels are shared, it raises the risk for more serious infections like staphylococcus and MRSA.  

If you work out in a fitness center (or studio), particularly when it’s busy, you’ll want to take some extra precautions:

  1. Clean and disinfect equipment in the gym and locker room before and after using it. Most gyms have bottles of disinfectant and towel readily available to use. However, can bring in your own sanitizer wipes. 
  2. Bring your own heavy plastic, reusable water bottle. This will lower your need for public water fountains and disposable water bottles that also accrue germs. 
  3. Wash and sanitize your hands after working out. Most gyms have sanitizer stations throughout the facility. You can bring your own handwipes and small bottles of sanitizer. 
  4. Wear weightlifting gloves. They can help minimize the number of germs you touch and can protect your hands especially if there is an open wound.  
  5. Bring a clean towel to wipe off your sweat and don’t share the towel with others. Many gym requires you to bring in a workout towel to wipe down equipment after your use. But don’t use that same towel to wipe sweat off your brow (bring in another towel for your body) and don’t share the towel. 
  6. Bring your own soft equipment mat, yoga blocks, Pilates strap handles. This will help limit the germs you’re exposed to in a gym or studio, as you can wash items more thoroughly and more often than most gyms and studios can.
  7. Keep covered, wear socks and band aids. One of the primary risks for developing an infection is an open sore. Wearing a towel in steams rooms, saunas and locker rooms and generally staying covered can help lower your risk for infections. 
  8. Never go barefoot. Wear flip flops in steam rooms and saunas, and flip flops or socks in studios to minimize the risk of catching something through sores and cracked skin on feet.    
  9. Use a synthetic gym bag. They’re less porous than natural material and tend to collect less germs. Wipe them down regularly and avoid placing them on gym floors and benches. 

In addition to washing and sanitizing your hands, equipment and bag, make sure you also clean your sneakers. Learn more about his process >>

If you work out at home, the same rules apply. You should make sure you’re cleaning your equipment and machines regularly. 

About the Author
Janet Tiberian Author
Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES

Janet Tiberian is MDVIP's health educator. She has more than 25 years experience in chronic disease prevention and therapeutic exercise.

View All Posts By Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES
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