How to Avoid Gym Germs

How to Avoid Gym Germs

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Fact checked by Derick Wilder


Why do you work out? To stay in shape? Relieve stress? Keep your weight in check? Or simply because you enjoy exercise? While we have different reasons for hitting the gym, one of the overarching goals tends to be getting, and hopefully staying, healthy. 

However — and you may be surprised to learn this — the gym can actually make you sick. 

Even if your health club looks clean, illness-causing bacteria, germs, and viruses are likely lurking. One recent study found that 10% to 30% of gym surfaces contained bacteria that could cause illness or skin infections. (Yuck!) 

Here’s a closer look at ways the gym can be dangerous — and how to stay healthy during your exercise routine and beyond. 

Tips to Keep Your Workout from Making You Sick:

1.  Start with a clean surface: The first step to protecting yourself is making sure that the surfaces you touch at the gym are clean, says Kate Hahn, membership & wellness director at Indian Boundary YMCA in Downers Grove. “Wipe down any equipment you use with disinfecting wipes before and after you use it to protect yourself and the next user of the equipment,” she says. If using a treadmill, for example, use a wipe on the handrails and the console — any surface you may touch — before you get on the machine. 

2.  Protect your feet: According to the American Academy of Dermatology, the warm, humid atmosphere in the locker room, sauna or steam room, and pool deck make it easy for bacteria that cause skin conditions like plantar warts, impetigo, and ringworm. “Wear shower shoes or flip-flops in the locker room and all the way out to the pool to avoid picking up germs and bacteria that may be on the hard surfaces,” Hahn says. “We clean the locker rooms and pool deck frequently, but better to be safe than sorry.” 

3.  Do your laundry: Your gym may supply towels, but bringing your own ensures that it’s clean. Wash it regularly to kill bacteria — and the same goes for your workout gear. Wearing the same clothes more than once without washing them allows bacteria to grow, which can lead to nasty skin infections. 

4.  Avoid touching your face: When you touch your mouth, nose, or eyes, you can introduce germs or viruses into your body. A good workout rule of thumb is to avoid touching your face during your workout. Post-workout, wash your hands or use hand sanitizer to kill germs you may have picked up, Hahn says. 

5.  Rely on your own water: You’ll cut back on the risk of picking up a cold or flu germ if you skip the communal water fountain. Instead, bring your own water bottle, and use a bottle filler to refill it (if available). Wash your water bottle regularly as well.

6.  Avoid the hot tub: Finally, skip the hot tub post-workout. They may be relaxing, but they also may contain contaminated water that can cause a skin infection known as hot tub rash, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Hahn says that the YMCA ensures that any hot tubs in their community hubs are at the correct temperature and chemical level to be safe, “but I would avoid using a communal hot tub if you want to be as safe as possible.” Instead, opt for the sauna — and be sure to sit on a clean towel.

Originally published in the Spring/Summer 2024 print issue.