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How Worrisome are Germs at the Gym?

We do NOT want to turn you into a germaphobe, but in the age of COVID-19 we do need to be careful. A new study suggests that germs at the gym are a problem.
How Worrisome are Germs at the Gym?
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How germy is the equipment at your gym? Those of us who use gym equipment don’t worry very much about germs at the gym because we assume that the equipment is not that “dirty.” We wipe down the controls and the handles on the treadmill or the elliptical machine after we are done and hope that the person who used it before us did the same. But a study presented at the American Society for Microbiology (July 24) suggests that frequently touched surfaces on exercise equipment may be contaminated with antibiotic-resistant microbes.

What’s Lurking on Gym Equipment?

There was a time, six months or so ago, when we didn’t think twice about touching gas pump handles, grocery carts, ATM buttons and screens or gym equipment. That was of course before COVID-19. Now, people are being a lot more careful. Are their concerns justified?

Researchers collected swabs from recreational facilities at two universities. They tested cable pull grips on exercise equipment as well as dumbbells, barbells and kettlebells. They also swabbed the handles of treadmills and elliptical equipment. All told, they tested surfaces from 45 different pieces of equipment.

The investigators identified 462 Staphylococcus aureus cultures. Of those, 43% were resistant to ampicillin. In addition, many of the cultures were also resistant to the antibiotics erythromycin and sulfisoxazole. There were also positive cultures for MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staph aureus). There is no question that there are a lot of germs at the gym. This suggests that people might want to wipe down the equipment with disinfectant wipes before, as well as after, using it.

How Worrisome Is Bacterial Contamination?

Staphylococcus aureus is not a nice germ. An article in the journal Microbiology (Jan. 2015) states: 

“…S. aureus has gained considerable attention from the medical community due to its involvement in the increasing number of nosocomial and community acquired infections resulting in nearly half a million hospitalizations and 50 000 deaths each year in the USA alone.”

Where Else Do You Find Bacteria?

Germs at the gym are not the only concern. A study from the Medical College of Georgia reported that the privacy curtains within medical intensive care units are contaminated with a number of bacteria, including methicillin-resistant Staph. Aureus (American Journal of Infection Control, July, 2020). 

Smart phones are another source of bacterial contamination. Welsh researchers tested mobile phones from 250 hospital staff and 191 control group participants (Journal of Hospital Infection, Feb. 2020).  They reported that:

“Almost all (99.2%) of hospital staff smartphones were contaminated with potential pathogens, and bacterial colony forming units (CFUs) were significantly higher on hospital phones than in the control group. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus (VRE) were only detected on hospital mobile phones.”

“This study reinforces the need to consider infection-control policies to mitigate the potential risks associated with the increased use of smartphones in clinical environments…”

If There Are Bacteria, Are Viruses Close Behind?

These days people are probably far more worried about the coronavirus than Staph aureus or other pathogenic bacteria. Can viruses survive on hospital curtains, smart phones or gym equipment? So far there have not been great studies to answer such questions. And yes, we do find that shocking!

There seems to be a growing consensus that airborne spread is the primary way people are catching COVID-19. That said, good hand hygiene is also appropriate. The germs at the gym could also include coronaviruses.

Should you wish to learn more about surfaces that are often contaminated with unwanted germs, here is a link to an article we wrote about white coats and stethoscopes:

Is Your Doctor’s Tie and White Coat Making You Sick?
Doctors love a long white coat. For many it is a way to distinguish themselves. But white coats, ties, long sleeves and jewelry can spread germs

While not the most likely mode of transmission, the possibility does exist that COVID-19 can be transmitted from surfaces. Here are the data:

Beware Surface Spread of Coronavirus Over Two Weeks!
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At last count, 4.4 million Americans have been infected with COVID-19. Over 150,000 have died. Clearly, this virus is highly contagious. It makes sense to take precautions. If you read our new article on “The Cardiac Effects of COVID-19” you will take this disease seriously. Heart complications last longer than most people imagine.

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.” .
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