If you go to the gym to keep your health on track, it may come as a rude awakening to learn that the average athletic facility is teeming with potentially dangerous bacteria. But just how contaminated are your go-to pieces of workout equipment? A 2019 study published in the journal BMC Infectious Diseases has the answer.
The researchers behind the study analyzed surface samples from all your favorite gym staples and learned that four pieces of equipment—plus one other surprising item—are rife with Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus), a common bacteria which can cause infection. Read on to learn what the most contaminated things in your gym are, and how you can protect your health while working out.
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The researchers took surface samples from 18 items within 16 gym facilities across Northeastern Ohio, for a total of 288 samples. After conducting their microbiological surveys, they learned that four pieces of gym equipment stood out as being especially commonly colonized with S. aureus bacteria: the weight ball (62 percent), cable driven curl bar (62 percent), weight plates (56 percent) and treadmill handle (50 percent).
While not considered gym equipment, they also noted that the water fountains were contaminated as frequently as treadmill handles, at a rate of 50 percent. Notably, all five of these items were colonized with more bacteria than the door handles of the gyms’ bathrooms (18 percent).
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Out of 288 samples, 110 (38 percent) were found to be S. aureus-positive. Seventy-seven of those positive samples were found to be methicillin-susceptible Staphylococcus aureus (MSSA), otherwise known as a Staph infection. Thirty-three were found to be methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), which is resistant to antibiotic treatment.
The latter “superbugs” are considered a far more serious threat to your health, since they are not easily treated. According to the Mayo Clinic, MRSA infections typically present with a skin infection, which may look like bumps, spider bites, or pimples, and can develop into painful boils that require draining. “Sometimes the bacteria remain confined to the skin. But they can also burrow deep into the body, causing potentially life-threatening infections in bones, joints, surgical wounds, the bloodstream, heart valves and lungs,” they warn.
Among the 16 gyms the researchers analyzed, they reviewed data from four “CrossFit”-type facilities, four traditional iron gyms, five community center gyms, and three hospital gyms. “Community gyms (40 percent) had the highest contamination prevalence among sampled surfaces with CrossFit (38.9 percent), traditional gyms (38.9 percent), and hospital associated (33.3 percent) contaminated less frequently, though the differences were not significant,” the study authors wrote.
What did prove significant was the rate at which these facilities were contaminated with MRSA. Fifty-two percent of community-based fitness facilities were colonized with antibiotic-resistant strains, compared with 32 percent of traditional fitness facilities, and 14 percent of CrossFit gyms. Though hospitals are the most common place MRSA is spread, just five percent of hospital-associated gyms were colonized with the superbug.
The team further tested those samples for traces of panton valentine leukocidin (PVL), a toxin associated with severe clinical symptoms of MRSA infections. They found that while only three samples tested positive for PVL, they were all found in community gyms.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that while MRSA may be drug-resistant, you can still greatly reduce your chances of transmission by showering or thoroughly washing your hands before and after working out. Their experts advise wiping down equipment with sanitizing wipes before and after use and limiting your exposure to shared items in the locker room, such as towels or bar soap. Because many cases of MSSA and MRSA are spread via skin-to-skin transmission, you should also limit your direct exposure to others while working out or playing sports.
Speak with your doctor if you believe you may have signs of a Staph or MRSA infection.
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