With some equipment boasting more bacteria than your average toilet seat, the gym can give you more than just toned muscles and a good sweat session—it can also make you sick.
These are eight of the grossest places in your gym and the best germ-beating strategies for each of them.
Free Weights1 of 9
Let's get the bad news out of the way first: The average free weight can reportedly have up to 362 times more bacteria than a toilet seat.
This shouldn't be too surprising, as free weights are one of the most used objects in the gym, and honestly, when was the last time you saw someone wiping down the barbells? Plus, the hard surface of free weights provides a more conducive environment for germs versus fabric-covered items.
Germ Buster: To protect yourself, disinfect the weights before use and avoid touching your face until you wash your hands.
Cardio Equipment2 of 9
When you head to the gym for cardio, you may be getting more than just a good workout. Your average treadmill harbors 74 times more bacteria than a typical bathroom faucet and those germs can cause everything from skin infections to pneumonia and septicemia.
While cardio machines are supposed to be wiped down after each use, often times several "touch surfaces" (screens, TVs, remotes) are missed. And even after a wipe down, germs can remain on the machine. Bike seats (especially those made of a more foamy material) can even house dangerous germs such as Staphylococcus, fungi and yeast.
Germ Buster: Thoroughly clean the touch surfaces, handles and buttons before and after use. While you are on the machine, avoid using your hands to wipe sweat from your face as this can give germs a free ride into your system. Blot your sweat with a (clean) towel instead, and wash your hands immediately after your workout.
Water Bottle3 of 9
You know that water fountains can support germs (both on the button and the fountain spout!), but bringing your own water bottle doesn't automatically mean "germ-free".
Opening the sport top of your water bottle with your hands transfers those germs from everything you've touched to your mouth when you take a drink. Filling your bottle from the fountains at the gym poses a risk as well—germs can get a ride on the air stream that ends up in your bottle as you fill it.
Germ Buster: Choose a reusable bottle that has a twist off top and avoid those with a pull-up spout or built-in straw. Fill it up at your house (away from the gym) and make sure to rinse the bottle out daily to prevent bacteria growth.
Gym Bag4 of 9
Gym bags take a lot of abuse. Stuffed with sweaty clothes and smelly shoes and flung on the floor, these bags can be a surprising hotspot for germs. Though many of the germs found in gym bags are your own (and therefore won't hurt you), harmful microbes can latch on to your bag each time you place it in a locker, on a bench or on the floor. Staph, salmonella, E. coli and pseudomonas (germs that can cause eye infections) can all hitch a ride with your gear.
Germ Buster: Choose a bag that is plastic or vinyl as germs and bacteria are less likely to attach to those materials. Keep your dirty clothes and shoes in a separate compartment or use a plastic bag to separate them from the rest of your gear.
At home, use a disinfectant wipe to clean your bag inside and out. If you use a washable cloth or canvas bag, throw it in the washing machine on the hot water cycle and toss it in the dryer for 45 minutes.
Weight Changing Levers5 of 9
Most courteous gym-goers perform at least a cursory wipe-down of the weight machine handles and seats after a set, but almost everyone overlooks the lever used to change the weight stack. This little lever that everyone touches can transfer several different types of bacteria from its surface to your skin before you've even done a single rep.
Germ Buster: To avoid picking up germs along with your gains, grab a disinfecting wipe or spray and take a few seconds to clean the lever before changing the weight stack.
Towels6 of 9
Those freshly laundered towels at your gym might not be as clean as you think. Many gyms use the same hamper to transport dirty towels as well as clean ones, meaning that those "fresh" towels could harbor traces of E.coli or even MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus). Throwing down a towel as a barrier between you and the seats of weight machines is a good idea, but if you aren't consistently placing the same side of the towel face down on the surface of the equipment, you could be transferring germs to your body with each rep.
Germ Buster: Bring a towel from home and mark a small "X" with a permanent marker on one side. Only that side should make contact with the gym machines. Bring a separate towel to wipe the sweat off your face.
Exercise Mat7 of 9
You may not think twice about plopping down on a gym mat to stretch or do some crunches, but mats are another frequently used (but seldom disinfected) piece of gym equipment that can house dangerous microbes responsible for hepatitis A, skin infections, colds and the flu.
Germ Buster: Bring your own mat and disinfect it often using sanitizing wipes or sprays. If you use the gym's mat, make sure to disinfect before use and consider placing a (clean!) towel between you and the mat to avoid direct contact.
Shower8 of 9
Even the "cleanest" gym locker room can give us germ-filled nightmares, and there's no scarier place than the shower. The hot and humid environment is a perfect breeding ground for disease-causing microbes like strep and MRSA. Gym members also track in all sorts of germs on their shoes (think fecal matter—ew!), which introduce organisms into your body that can give you stomach flu or even hepatitis A.
And if you sit on the locker room benches naked, look out: Studies have detected traces of vaginal yeast on those surfaces, which can put you at risk for developing an infection.
Germ Buster: Always wear flip-flops in the locker room and shower and use liquid soap dispensers (vs. bar soap) when showering. Avoid shaving at the gym as even tiny nicks and cuts can allow germs to easily enter the body.
Sit on a (clean!) towel to avoid direct contact with benches while unclothed.