Why the gym could be making you sicker, not healthier

Most people expect to leave the gym looking better, not worse, than when they walked in. Not so for Daniel Brady, who found a wart on his hand and "jock itch", both of which he believes he got from gym germs: "The jock-itch was probably from the showers – shower shoes could've helped, however unstylish (fungus on the feet can be pulled up to the crotch when putting on your underwear)."

With public gyms seeing so many sweaty people come into contact with the same equipment, you'd be forgiven for worrying that they could be breeding grounds for bacteria. But how accurate is the assumption that gym germs are spreading viruses?

Is it a well founded concern or are we just being paranoid?

More dirty than a dunny

Murray McDonald is the Director of Duplex Cleaning Machines, which provides cleaning solutions for gym equipment. He says that the gym germs are all in the touch points – some equipment could be more germ-ridden than others: "The more the equipment is physically touched, the more bacteria it tends to have. For example, a treadmill will have less bacteria than free weights. This is because free weights are what we call in cleaning as being a key 'touch point' in a gym. Weights can have significantly more bacteria than a toilet seat, approximately a few hundred times more."

"I've stopped going to public gyms"

This information is enough to put off some people from using public gyms altogether.

"I used to be a gym goer but now I exercise at home or outdoors," says Amy Darcy, editor of healthy Australian lifestyle blog Eat, Pray, Workout. "There's nothing worse than someone sneezing mid-way through a session on the cross trainer and then using their hand to wipe their nose, but instead of going and washing their hands, they just put their hands straight back onto the cross trainer. Gross! Unless you are very fit your heart rate won't drop that much between you walking quickly to and from the basin to wash your hands! Seriously, I do not want to touch your snot."

Busting the gloves myth

Sam Lucas, 41, keeps high standards in his private gym in Banksmeadow, NSW, which is only open to "like-minded trainers" because of previous bad experiences.

"There have been many occasions in martial art gyms that use the foam matting where staph infections have spread through classes. This can close a business down because the staph infections can be very hard to shake even with antibiotics – so you can't train when you have them because you keep spreading it around."

He also busts the myth that gloves protect you. "Gym gloves that are meant to be protecting you from bacteria will become a breeding ground. They'll be soaking up sweat and unless you wash them regularly, they'll start to get on the nose."


But experts say: chill

Dr Ashley Franks, a microbiologist at Melbourne's La Trobe University, suggests that the gym germs phenomenon may've been over-egged.

"First of all, remember that most bacteria is good for us. If gym equipment is dry, the bacteria will dry off – and that often happens from the gym's air con, or it gets sterilised from sunlight coming through the window. Your own gym towel will be worse. If it smells bad, that's bacteria you can smell."

Professor Jonathan Iredell, an expert in infectious diseases and microbiology at the University of Sydney, agrees: "Germs don't want to sit on chrome for three hours, and not all germs are bad. Although some germs are tougher than others, normal human hygiene will keep many at bay in the gym. You're more likely to catch a cold from someone sneezing on your way to the gym, to be honest."

The solutions

Professor Iredell says there are some thing gyms can and should do.

"It's reasonable to ask that, in their duty of care, they provide alcohol handwipes - so your hands can come to your face with confidence."

Gym cleaning expert Murray McDonald has this advice: "I'd recommend a high-temperature steam vapour. Using this type of steam can kill bacteria on contact. This type of technology is even used in hospitals for sanitising of touch points and key surfaces, so it has high level sterilising capabilities."

Have you ever been made sick from the gym? Share your experience in the comments section below.