Gym germs: Is your fitness centre making you sick?

By Tegan Osborne

Have you ever found yourself wondering just how dirty your gym is?

Perhaps the question came to you as you watched yet another very sweaty man or woman walk away from the leg press machine, without giving it the obligatory wipe-down.

It’s easy to let your mind run wild, imagining the germs that might be left behind – and there is some science to back up your fears.

A recent study found the free weights examined had 362 times more germs than the average toilet seat.

But how likely is it that you’ll catch a serious disease at the average Australian gym?

What exactly is lurking on the gym equipment?

There’s been very little local research on infectious disease in gyms.

But a US study published in 2014 found evidence of a range of potentially disease-causing bacteria, including staphylococcus aureus (commonly known as golden staph), staphylococcus saprophyticus (which can cause urinary tract infections) and salmonella (a common cause food poisoning).

Although many of these bacteria are also found on public surfaces outside gyms, the study found that the poor personal hygiene of gym users generally and inadequate cleaning, were likely to have caused the rich diversity of bacteria found.

In the US, a number of cases of methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) – a type of antibiotic-resistant bacteria usually found in hospitals – have been linked to gyms.


But infectious disease expert Professor Allen Cheng, from Monash University, said he had not seen any evidence from Australia of MRSA being spread through a gym environment.

“Community-acquired MRSA seems to be a bigger problem in the US … they have a lot more MRSA in general and it seems to have spilled out of their hospitals a lot earlier than it did in Australia,” he said.

“But in general, MRSA is sort of a declining problem in Australia – it’s one of the rare success stories we’ve had with reducing the antibiotic resistance.”

Another US study, published in 2006, found a range of viruses on gym equipment – the most common being rhinoviruses, which are often responsible for colds.

And earlier this year, a laboratory study commissioned by Fit Rated, a gym equipment comparison website, also found evidence of a wealth of disease-causing bacteria in gyms.

The study, which examined 27 different pieces of equipment at three different gyms, found the kinds of bacteria present that can cause ear, eye, skin and respiratory infections.

But how does did the gym equipment tested compare to other everyday surfaces we are likely to come into contact with?

Well, in addition to infectious free weights, the treadmills were found to have 74 times more bacteria than a public bathroom faucet, and the exercise bikes had 39 times more bacteria than a tray from your local food court.


This all sounds pretty alarming, but don’t panic just yet.

Flu, viral gastro must likely bugs you’ll catch

Professor Cheng said there was very little evidence that gyms were responsible for the spread of serious diseases in Australia.

“I think where we worry most about [disease spread] is where there’s large groups of people that are susceptible to infections, like in hospital,” he said.

In other words, if you’re relatively healthy and your immune system is not compromised, you don’t really need to be concerned.

However, as with other public spaces, there are disease-causing germs that can be contracted from surfaces in gyms.

“Flu is probably … one and other respiratory viruses. So if people went to the gym while they’ve got the flu you can leave it on surfaces and catch it that way,’ Professor Cheng said.

The other illness that can be contracted in a gym setting is gastro.

“It’s a virus that is well known to be able to survive on surfaces,” Professor Cheng said.

“This is the same bug that causes outbreaks on cruise ships quite regularly and that’s because it’s hard to clean and hard to disinfect.”

Professor Cheng said when it came to influenza and gastro, the onus was really on the infected person to avoid the gym.


“Obviously if people are unwell we ask them not to go spreading it around in gyms, or swimming pools for that matter … that’s really the best way that we can avoid it,” he said.

Dr Barbara Breadon from the Australasian College of Dermatologists said tinea of the feet and warts, particularly plantar warts, were probably the most common skin issues likely to affect gym users.

“Especially if there’s a facility that has a pool or that sort of thing, or shared showers,” she said.

“I usually tell people to take their own thongs and wear those in the shower.”

However Dr Breadon, who is a practicing dermatologist, said skin complaints contracted in a gym environment were generally easily treated and we shouldn’t be put off.

“It’s not a big risk. You’re better off to take the risk of getting some minor skin thing … it’s more important for general health to have a lifestyle with certain amount of activity,” she said.

Tips for better gym hygiene:

  • Take your own clean towel : Your towel can be used as a barrier between your body and the equipment. Conversely your sweat will be absorbed, so the next person to use the equipment doesn’t have to deal with it. But make sure you wash the towel between each gym visit, as warm damp areas are a breeding ground for bacteria.
  • Wipe down the equipment: Most gyms provide wipes and surface cleaner, so use them. If you’re worried about whether the equipment is clean, it’s perfectly acceptable to do a wipe before you use it. And as a courtesy to the next person, you should wipe it down afterwards too.
  • Wear thongs in the shower: This helps protects you from the germs that cause tinea and plantar warts, often found in these environments.
  • Clean your yoga/fitness mat regularly:Germs can collect on your yoga mat if you don’t clean it between uses. Do a quick wipe down between each use, and a proper clean once a week.
  • Wash your hands: After you’ve been to the gym, wash your hands before eating or preparing food, to get rid of germs pricked up on gym surfaces and help protect yourself against viral gastro.
  • Don’t use the gym when you’re sick: If you’re sick with the flu, gastro or other contagious illnesses don’t go to the gym, as germs left on contact surfaces can easily spread to others.

Gyms have a duty of care

If you’re worried about cleanliness at your gym facility, there are things you can do keep yourself healthy.

Joel Perricone from Fitness Australia, a peak health industry association that certifies both fitness facilities and trainers, said concern about cleanliness was the most common reason for people to end their gym membership.

There are no enforceable industry rules or standards about how often gyms should be cleaned.


But most fitness industry associations have guidelines around cleanliness, and gyms do have a duty of care to provide a safe environment for their clients and staff.

If you’re really worried about the cleanliness of your gym, Mr Periconne said the best way to tackle it was to speak with the manager directly.

“It is difficult, but reporting it to the manager or the owner of the facility to rectify it is probably the most effective way,” he said.

Mr Perricone said the best time to consider gym hygiene was actually before you signed up with a fitness centre.

“Look for a registered fitness facility … and have a look at the practices. Usually you’ll be able to see some sort of cleaning apparatus for equipment once people have completed their exercise. They’ve either got wipes or they’ve got spray bottles with rags,” he said.

He said it was also a good idea to pay attention to the cleanliness of the bathrooms during your pre-signup tour.

“Change rooms and bathrooms and the like are always a good area to understand the true cleanliness of a facility… so have a look around,” he said.

This post originally appeared on ABC News.

© 2016 Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved. Read the ABC Disclaimer here