Gyms are germ playgrounds. This you know.
That’s one reason why, like a lot of exercisers during the COVID-19 pandemic, you’re quarantining your workouts to home, right? Maybe you’ve stocked a corner of your living room or basement with some cardio equipment, free weights, or resistance bands.
But if, again, like a lot of exercisers, you haven’t given much thought to cleaning that equipment, you may benefit from breaking out the disinfectant.
“Of course there’s a risk if you’re sharing the gym with multiple people in your household, but even if you’re the only person using your at-home gym, that doesn't mean you aren’t bringing bacteria and viruses into it from external environments,” explains Iahn Gonsenhauser, MD, chief quality and patient safety officer with The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus.
While, theoretically, yes, this could include the novel coronavirus, it also includes common viruses like rhinovirus (the common cold), influenza, as well as ringworm fungus and bacteria like staphylococcus, he says.
For example, in a January 2019 BMC Infectious Diseases study of 288 swabs taken from surfaces at fitness facilities, 38 percent contained the bacteriaStaphylococcus aureus (“staph”) and 12 percent contained its antibiotic-resistant variant, MRSA. The most contaminated surfaces were the weight ball (63 percent), cable driven curl bar/CrossFit box (63 percent), weight plates (56 percent), and treadmill handle (50 percent). Meanwhile, only 19 percent of bathroom levers and door handles contained bacteria.
Gyms are unique in that they are not only incredibly high-touch environments but also tend to involve a lot of fast, deep panting and aerosolization of respiratory droplets, explains Holly Danneman, MD, a family medicine specialist at St. Elizabeth Healthcare in Edgewood, Kentucky. Between breathing heavily onto cardio machine displays, grabbing dumbbells, and wiping the sweat from your face, you are pretty much spreading germs all over. "Germs are just waiting for you to introduce them into your eyes or mouth,” Dr. Gosenhauser says.
For comparison’s sake, if you look in other areas of your house, research shows sponges and dish rags are the dirtiest of all household items around, followed by kitchen sinks, toothbrush holders, and then pet bowls. When researchers swabbed household items for coliform bacteria — which include salmonella and E. coli and indicates possible fecal contamination — more than 75 percent of dish sponges and rags tested positive.
Which also begs the question: What are you using to wipe down your at-home gym equipment?
Your New Home Gym Cleaning Routine
When it comes to anything exercise-related, best practices include disinfecting after every use, Gosenhauser says. That includes mats, weights, machines, clothes, and water bottles — and anything else with which you come into contact.
In broad strokes, if you clean everything with a disinfectant wipe or disinfectant spray and paper towel following use, you’re in pretty good shape. However, depending on how often you use your gym, Gosenhauser also explains that every one to two weeks, it’s prudent to perform a deeper clean. Put on gloves, wash everything with a mild soap and water, and go back over everything with a disinfectant.
Popular options include Clorox and Lysol, and you can go to epa.com to find a list of cleaning products that meet the Environmental Protection Agency’s criteria for use against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. To make an at-home disinfectant, Gosenhauser recommends adding 1/4 cup bleach to a gallon of water. “Leave it wet on the surface for 30 seconds to a minute, then wipe it off,” he says.
Also, make sure to completely remove each cleaning product and let the surface fully dry before applying another product, as mixing household cleaners can cause toxic gases, he says. When using harsh disinfectants, it’s also prudent to wear a face mask and open the windows for improved ventilation.
Special Considerations for Cleaning Gym Equipment
It isn't really possible to get your home gym completely germ-free unless you perform very high-temperature cleaning, akin to the way medical equipment is cleaned. However, this isn’t necessary; regular cleaning will keep bacteria at a safe level. Here, experts share strategies to help maintain a healthy gym environment.
Yoga MatSpray the mat thoroughly with a sanitizing spray, and let it dry, advises Dr. Danneman, explaining that the drying process is critical to clean most germs. If you’re using a disinfectant wipe, make sure to hit the entire surface thoroughly. You may need more than one towelette for the job. Let it fully air-dry before rolling it back up.
During deeper cleanings, try placing the mat in the bottom of your bathtub and giving it a thorough scrub with a brush. Once dry, wipe it down with a disinfectant, she says.
Foam RollersWiping these down similarly to yoga mats is important, but submerging them in water isn’t usually a viable option, since they can retain moisture, Gosenhauser says. The last thing you want is a bacterial colony sprouting inside your roller.
If your foam roller is getting noticeably worn down or discolored, despite topical disinfecting, it may be time to retire your roller. When purchasing a new one, opt for one with a more solid, nonporous surface that will be less apt to collect particles.
Hand WeightsTextured, grippy surfaces are great for dirt and grime to get into. Spraying disinfectant down into tiny cracks should do the disinfecting trick, but if you’re still concerned or notice buildup in the ridges, you can use a scrub brush with soap and water to dislodge any debris, such as dead skin cells, Gosenhauser says.
While your focus will likely be on the handles, don’t forget to hit the ends of dumbbells and weights, too.
Resistance Bands and Suspension TrainersDisinfectant wipes are suitable for daily use, but to get a deeper clean (important with frequently used foam handles), place them in a bucket of warm, soapy water and get scrubbing, Danneman says.
Ring them out and, again, once fully dried, apply a disinfectant.
Cardio MachinesWhile these are by no means germ-free, they are pretty easy to clean, thanks to their smooth surfaces and screens, explains Arielle Levitan, MD, a board-certified internal medicine physician based in Highland Park, Illinois.
Wiping the screen and handles with a disinfectant after every use will get the vast majority of their germs, but make sure to hit the entire machine — pedals or tread, included — during periodic deep cleans. “Our shoes bring in a lot of germs we don’t think about,” Dr. Levitan says.
ShoesSpeaking of shoes, your at-home shoes should be for at-home use only. “All other shoes should be left at the door,” Levitan advises.
If you accidentally wear your street sneakers onto your yoga mat or cardio machine, make sure to give any contact points an extra wipe down. While your shoes could theoretically bring something out of the gym, they are much more likely to introduce germs into your gym.
ClothesThe main concern here is the growth of bacteria within the fibers of dirty, sweaty clothing, according to Danneman. “Wash clothes after every use, no matter how ‘not sweaty’ you think you got,” she says.
Changing out of your workout clothes immediately after your workouts, and preferably showering, can also help reduce the risk of acne as well as yeast infections on the skin or genitals.
Water BottlesA Journal of Exercise Physiology study published in August 2018 identified significant bacteria contamination in 83 percent of exercisers’ reusable shaker bottles.
Stick your water bottle in the dishwasher after each use and wash or sanitize your hands before getting your drink or smoothie ready, suggests Gosenhauser.