HPV from your spin bike? Herpes from your yoga mat? Docs break down the real health risks you face at the gym, plus how to protect yourself.

Updated January 21, 2020
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You hit the gym regularly to be healthy and fit, but did you know you may be getting more than flat abs and strong arms there? Gym germs are strong, researchers say. Norovirus, which causes stomach pain, vomiting, and diarrhea, can survive for a month on the surface of exercise machines. The fungi responsible for foot infections multiply at a blinding pace in the shower. And microbes like MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can lead to dangerous skin infections, lurk in the locker room. To help you stay safe from these gym germs, we asked top experts to ID the biggest danger zones and to share the best germ-beating strategies. (Related: 8 Gross Bathroom Habits That Are Bad for Your Health)

Free Weights, Weight Machines, Exercise Balls

Because so many people handle it, this equipment is rife with gym germs and viruses that can lead to colds and other infections. "I've even found MRSA on an exercise ball in a gym," says Philip Tierno Jr., Ph.D., a clinical professor of microbiology and pathology at NYU Medical School and the author of The Secret Life of Germs.

How to stay safe from these gym germs: It may not necessarily be standard gym protocol, but wipe down your weights after use. Weightlifting gloves can also act as a protective barrier from gym germs (though not a foolproof one, since your fingertips are still exposed). It sounds simple, but a thorough hand washing after any lifting sesh is your best method of protection. In addition, wipe equipment with disinfectant before and after you use it. No spray at your gym? Carry antibacterial gel and rub it on your hands before and after your workout. (Related: The Best Weight-Lifting Gloves, Plus How to Clean Them)

Yoga Mat

As you stretch, strike a yoga pose, or take a group exercise class, you could be lying in a slew of microbes that can cause skin infections, athlete's foot, colds and flu, and hepatitis A. A steamy yoga studio is a playground for all types of bacteria and viruses, which thrive in these types of warm, moist environments. In fact, contact with a dirty yoga mat can potentially cause everything from acne to toenail fungus, says David A. Greuner, M.D., managing director and co-founder of NYC Surgical Associates, who also adds MRSA (a severe staph infection) and even herpes to this list.

While these are all real risks, naturopathic physician Jennifer Stagg is quick to point out that these types of skin infections aren't especially common gym germs, since they depend on the overall health of each person's skin microbiome. Colds, flu, and stomach bugs are much more likely, she adds. And regarding herpes: As long as you're not doing your downward dog in the buff (although we admit we’ve been there, tried that with naked yoga…), you're likely in the clear; herpes is typically spread through mucous membranes or broken skin.

How to stay safe from these gym germs: A thorough wipe-down with an antibacterial wipe is sufficient, notes Dr. Greuner. (Or, to be extra-safe, bring your own mat and don't share it.) After each use, clean your mat with a bleach-based wipe or a 60 percent alcohol disinfectant spray and let it air-dry.

This should be done both pre- and post-class—even if you're using your own yoga mat—since it can pick up and harbor germs from the floor. (Did you hear? The world's first self-cleaning yoga mat is here to save the day, too.) Be sure to shower and wash your workout clothes after.

Gym Bag

While most of the gym germs in your bag are your own, and therefore harmless to you, disease-causing microbes can latch on every time you place it on a bench, in a locker, or on the floor. The most common critters to hitch a ride: staph, salmonella, E. coli, and pseudomonas, which can cause eye infections, says Charles Gerba, Ph.D., an environmental microbiologist at the University of Arizona.

How to stay safe from these gym germs: Choose vinyl or plastic gym bags, like these 15 stylish options. Germs and bacteria are less likely to adhere to these materials, says Elaine L. Larson, Ph.D., the senior associate dean for research at Columbia University School of Nursing. Keep dirty clothes and sneakers in a separate compartment or stash them in a plastic bag. At home, swab your gym bag inside and out with disinfectant wipes. If you use a canvas or cloth tote, toss it in the washing machine once a week. Use hot water and a bleach or peroxide-based detergent and then put the bag in the dryer for 45 minutes.

Towel

You grab a "clean" towel from the pile at the gym. What you can't see is that the fibers may be teeming with gym germs like E. coli or MRSA. "Most gyms use the same hamper to transport dirty towels and clean ones," says Tierno.

How to stay safe from these gym germs: Tote your own towel, marked with an X on one side with a permanent marker, advises Tierno; only that side should make contact with machines so you don't end up wiping yourself with the gym germs. Use the unmarked side on your skin. If you're showering at the gym, bring a separate towel, and try an antimicrobial one to reduce your risk for infection. (Then try this killer gym towel workout to target your abs and arms.)

Water Bottle

When you take a sip of H2O during your workout, germs move into your bottle from the rim, and they reproduce quickly. Hundreds of thousands of bacteria can lurk at the bottom; using the bottle after just a few days of not washing it can be the equivalent of drinking from a public swimming pool, says Larson.

How to stay safe from these gym germs: Avoid bottles with a pull-up spout or a built-in straw. Instead, choose a widemouthed bottle with a screw cap. Wash it in the dishwasher daily and store it in the fridge, suggests Larson. Germs are more likely to form when the bottle is warm. (Related: This Little Orb Will Change How You Clean Your Water Bottle)

Cardio Machines

Sweaty treadmills, ellipticals, and spinning bikes are more likely to get wiped down after use than free weights are, experts say, but that doesn't mean these machines are clean. Tierno's research found staph, fungi, and yeast on gym bike seats. Plus, the average treadmill has 74 times more bacteria than a public bathroom faucet, according to equipment reviews site FitRated. #Gross.

How to stay safe from these gym germs: Keep your hands to yourself. Not only will adopting a hands-off policy help you avoid picking up nasty gym germs, but it will also improve your workout. Think about it: You shouldn't be holding onto the handles when running on a treadmill or climbing on a StairMaster, and if you're on the elliptical, letting go of the handles will make your workout more challenging. (Check out five ways to get a crazy-good stair-climber workout.) Clean off the entire machine before and after with a disinfectant, and don't touch your face until after you've washed your hands.

Bike Seats

A 2015 study published in the journal Sexual Health showed that HPV (the human papillomavirus, responsible for genital warts and cervical cancer) was found even in women who were virgins, concluding that it could be contracted from doctors' offices, or from public spots like toilets and bike seats. Unnerving info for sure, but there's no need to cancel your spin class or avoid the elliptical at the gym. You're much more likely to catch a common cold or a stomach bug from a dirty bike than you are to contract HPV.

Turns out the real risk for gym germs lies in the handlebars, not the seat: "More pathogens are transmitted through hand contact, making dirty handles on the bike the most likely way to transfer germs," says Stagg.

How to stay safe from these gym germs: Again, that good ol' pre- and post-class wipe down is a must. As far as HPV goes, if you want to be extra cautious, opt for longer leggings instead of booty bike shorts to ensure everything down there is completely covered. Also important: Avoid touching your face. "All it takes to pick up a virus or bacteria is to touch an affected surface and then put your hand near your eyes, nose, or mouth," explains Stagg. This applies to your towel, too; if you have one draped over the handlebars, make sure you're using only the side NOT touching the bars to wipe your face.

Pool

The leading cause of pool-related diarrheal outbreaks is the chlorine-resistant pathogen cryptosporidium, which is spread by contaminated fecal matter, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In addition, bacteria, such as pseudomonas, can cause ear and eye infections, says Elizabeth Scott, Ph.D., a co-director of the Simmons College Center for Hygiene and Health in Home and Community in Boston. (Related: The Best Swimming Workouts For Every Fitness Level)

How to stay safe from these gym germs: Your gym should post data on the pH testing and cleaning of the pool, which is supposed to be done throughout the day. If that info isn't available, let your nose be your guide: Because chlorine releases its distinct smell as it reacts with microorganisms, the stronger the chlorine scent, the dirtier the pool. Always wear goggles and a swim cap or earplugs in the water.

Locker Room and Shower

The sweaty, humid locker room is the perfect petri dish for nasty buggers such as staph, strep, and MRSA, says Tierno, and the gym shower stall is riddled with fungi and organisms that can cause infections, like athlete's foot, ringworm, and warts. The danger starts at ground level. From outdoors, sneakers and other shoes track in fecal matter (eww!), which harbors organisms that can give you stomach flu and hepatitis A.

Saunas and steam rooms are also potentially problematic: "They're known to spread a variety of infections. Our skin softens when exposed to heat, making us far more prone to infectious transmission," cautions Dr. Greuner. And before you sit on any bench naked, consider this: Tierno's studies have detected traces of vaginal yeast there, which can put you at risk for an infection.

How to stay safe from these gym germs: As soon as you enter the locker room, slip on those flip-flops and don't take them off. Bare feet are a major no-no in the locker room, both in the shower and out. If you are going to use the sauna or steam room, sit on a towel and be sure to shower after. If you can wait until then, shower at home as soon as you get in the door, advises Tierno. Hanging out in sweaty workout clothes may lead to breakouts. If you do shower at the gym, use antimicrobial soap. Never shave there, because bugs can enter your body through tiny nicks. Blow-dry your feet to make sure they're moisture-free.

Fight Back Against Gym Germs

Follow this quick checklist to stay healthy while you exercise.

  • Cover any cuts or broken skin with a bandage before you go to the gym.
  • Wash your hands before and after your workout.
  • Wipe down machines before and after use.
  • Bring your own water bottle, towels, and exercise mat.
  • Never share your towels.
  • Don't sit on the locker-room bench naked.
  • Always wear flip-flops in the locker room and shower.
  • Don't shave at the gym or immediately before going there.
  • Whenever possible, shower at home after your workout.
  • Keep dirty clothes and sneakers in separate gym bag compartments or place sweaty duds in a plastic bag.
  • Wipe down your gym bag with a disinfectant spray and wash gym clothes after each use.
  • Examine your skin weekly. If you find a painful red spot or a bump, see a doc. It could be a MRSA infection, which needs immediate treatment.

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