Hitting the gym is a national pastime for many Australians, but does handling all that equipment mean that your body is handling a lot more too?
With a steady flow of people using the gym throughout the day, we know that germs are just part of the package. But the extent of these germs may come as a shock.
A 2016 study found that there are 39 times more bacteria on an exercise bike than on a reusable plastic lunch tray and there’s 74 times more bacteria on a treadmill than on a water faucet.
Perhaps the most disgusting finding of all however is that free weights can carry up to 362 times more bacteria than a toilet seat. And if you thought that disinfecting was the complete answer, think again.
A study published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine, showed that 63 per cent of machines that had been disinfected still had traces of rhinovirus, which causes the common cold.
Yes, we’re all cringing and rapidly washing our hands repeatedly. But, before you start packing away your gym bag and cancelling your membership, stop right there. Not all gym germs are bad. In fact, we need them to strengthen our immune systems.
“Humans are constantly exposed to millions upon millions of bacteria and other germs. An entire ecosystem of bacteria and micro-organisms exist on and in our body, and this is entirely normal and natural,” says Dr Ryan Harvey, deputy clinical director at House Call Doctor.
“The vast majority of the bacteria and germs we encounter cause us no illness or sickness and some even help our health, such as those found naturally in our digestive system.”
Harvey says that bacteria that will cause us to become unwell is important because it enables our immune system to develop healthily. If we’re not exposed to this, our body and immune system is poorly developed and can result in illness.
“Your immune system starts developing and building defences from birth and throughout childhood. A healthy immune system will help prevent severe and life-threatening disease throughout your life,” he says.
“There’s also emerging evidence that children growing up in a relatively sterile environment from bacteria, germs and antigens may be at more risk of developing allergies. An allergy is your immune system not functioning properly.”
When it comes to the gym Dr Harvey says that the easiest and most effective way to avoid catching or spreading germs is to practice basic hygiene. He says it’s not necessary to stop going.
Dr Harvey outlines basic hygiene as washing your hands after coughing or going to the toilet, wiping down workout equipment properly with soap or a disinfectant spray before and after use, and wearing clothing that will minimise injuries, such as cuts and grazes.
He also adds that wearing thongs in any communal shower is advised, as is ensuring that the gym you’re attending has a regular cleaning schedule.
“Being fit and healthy is actually really important in helping your immune system to run at its peak performance, so going to the gym is a great way to achieve this,” says Dr Harvey.
“You’ll be less likely to become ill because of the every day germs you encounter in your day to day life and, when you do get ill, your recovery time will be less than someone who is overweight or unfit.”
“The take home message is being healthy has many positive effects on your immune system and this is very much encouraged.”
Other tips for keeping those gym germs at bay include;
- Bringing and using your own water bottle
- Using your own towel as a barrier on equipment
- Wash your gym clothes after every workout
- Use a gym bag that you can put in the washing machine
- Buy and use your own exercise mat
- Shower at home whenever possible
- Stay away from the gym if you are sick