New Year’s resolutions typically attract more people into gyms. Many people want to start off January on the right foot. They set their alarm and drag themselves to the gym early and in the cold weather. This seems like a good idea and it is, however people are hitting the gym at the height of cold and flu season. 

It also turns out the gym can be a dirty place.

Numerous studies have shown that gyms can be a breeding ground for those cold and flu viruses, as well as E. coli, MRSA and other bacteria and virus strains that can quickly make you sick and take you out of your day to day routine.

Where are the gym germs hiding?

“The biggest thing about the gym is there are a lot of areas where germs, viruses and fungus can be year-round,” explained Bryan Combs, CRNP, a nurse practitioner at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Nursing.

He goes on to say, the worst places are the handle bars on elliptical machines, treadmills, bicycles, and weight machines.  “Even if the handlebars are cleaned regularly, handlebars are going to be covered in bacteria,” Combs said.

On top of that, many people assume the machines have been cleaned after each use, but that is often not the case. It is best to clean the machines on your own before and after each use.

“You need to use wipes or a disinfectant spray to wipe down the machines or weights before and after. Once you clean the equipment, hang your towel on an area that you know is clean. When you get done, clean it again for the next person.”

The places we go to clean up could also be dirty, including the towels. Something that people may also assume are clean, are the towels that gym patrons grab when they walk into the facility.

“While the towels have been washed, a lot of gyms use the same container to carry dirty towels to the washing area and then use the same one to bring clean towels back, so they can become contaminated again.”

Combs recommends bringing your own clean towel to make sure you avoid contamination with the germs from dirty towels. In addition, he explains how it is also important to always wash your towel after each workout, too.

Locker rooms and showers are other unsanitary places at the gym.  Combs stresses how important protecting your feet by wearing shoes in all areas of the gym, but especially in bathrooms. If you sit down, make sure a clean towel is placed on top of the bench or seat.

“Walking barefoot in locker rooms or showers is an easy way to contract MRSA or pick up a fungal infection like athlete’s foot. By wearing clean shoes, you can prevent catching something that is spread by skin contact.”

Staying hydrated is key when participating in physical activities. While using reusable water bottles is recommended and good for the environment, it is important to always wash them after every use.

“Some people use the same water bottle each time they go to the gym. If you don’t take it home and wash it, and you go to the gym a few or several days a week, the water bottle could be covered in bacteria.”

Combs says soap and hot water are the best ways to wash the bottles after each visit to the gym.

If you are tempted to  keep your sweaty clothes on, experts say you may want to reconsider.

 “As soon as you leave the gym, you should change clothes as soon as possible. A lot of people continue to wear their sweaty clothes for an hour or hour and a half. It’s important to take those off and shower as soon as you can after a workout.”

Last, gym bags are often the most overlooked germ carriers. 

Think about it, they tote around dirty shoes, clothes and water bottles, but are rarely cleaned. To prevent the spread of germs, it is important to always spray the bags with a disinfectant spray to kill the bacteria. This is recommended after each use if possible, but at least a few times a week for frequent gym-goers.

While most people know that door handles, bathroom knobs and faucets are contaminated, it is important to use paper towels to turn off faucets and open the door after washing your hands.

Combs says by following the above tips, along with an overall healthy lifestyle, you can help ensure that you are boosting your immune system and stay in optimal condition all year long.