After a particularly grueling pilates class at my gym a few weeks back, one class member approached the instructor with a question that, while it sounded harsh, was something I’d been wondering, as well.
“So, tell me. What’s the worst thing I could catch from using the communal mats for this class?”
I tend to take the lackadaisical approach to gym sanitation—I wipe down my machines with bleach spray and lay my tiny, sweat-covered towel between me and the mat, but for the most part, I tend to assume that if I don’t have a gaping wound, my skin is serving as a hermetically-sealed wrapper around my delicate innards. Which is, I found in researching this question, not the case.
Of course, it makes perfect sense that a gym is a hotbed for germs. It’s warm, often humid, and has a constantly replenished supply bodily fluids. But gym equipment at mats, which are usually made up of various rubbers, plastics, and metals, don’t tend to look dirty, due to frequent use and the occasional spray-down, which can lead to a false sense of sanitation.
The fact is, though, that these porous materials can trap germs, like those that spread the common cold, the flu, and even methicillin-resistant Staphylococcusaureus (that’s MRSA, which is a form of drug-resistant super-Staph). Outside of the body, all of these germs can live for hours—or in MRSA’s case, weeks or even months. Which means that even when a mat, treadmill, or weight looks clean, it can actually be hopping with infection-causing superbugs, which can get into tiny cuts or openings in your skin—or worse, your mouth.
Once MRSA gets into your blood, it doesn’t respond to treatment by antibiotics, and results in skin boils which can (get read) burrow deep into the joins or bones, causing extreme pain, illness, and repulsive open wounds. All of which pretty much defeat the purpose of working out in the first place.
Other diseases commonly found at gyms include impetigo, which is a common skin infection, Molluscum contagiosum, a viral infection that causes nodules on the skin, and even herpes. Blerg.
The best thing to do to keep you safe at the gym is to always make sure the equipment and gear you use is clean. Wipe the treadmill down before and after you use it with a clean (clean means “not the one you just sweated all over) towel and antibacterial spray, or a disposable anti-bacterial wipe, always wash your hands and shower after using shared weights or dumbells, and, when possible, bring your own yoga mat.
You can clean your own mat at home with a light spray of color-safe bleach and water, or use wipes. When you can’t bring your own mat, don’t be shy about bringing sanitizing wipes for the communal ones. If you get some strange looks from the other people in class, just tell them you’d rather not risk a Staph infection. They’ll probably stop judging you.