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August 2008 Issue

Germ-filled sweat seeps onto fitness mats, so cleaning them before and after each use is key.
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Exercise Caution: Harmful Germs May Lurk on Gym Equipment

By Amanda Harper
Published August 2008

There’s no question that exercise is a good thing: It promotes heart and vascular health, balanced weight, and strong bones and muscles.

But UC sports dermatologist Brian Adams, MD, says gym-goers should exercise some caution. Dangerous germs can lurk behind that sleek gym equipment and cause more harm than good.

“Without diligent cleaning, gyms can become breeding grounds for bacteria, viruses and fungi that are harmful to human health,” says Adams, associate professor of dermatology and director of the UC Physicians sports dermatology clinic.

“Keeping equipment clean is critically important—especially if you belong to a community gym where large groups of people are sharing equipment,” says Adams.

As Adams explains, the first few layers of human skin provide a protective, but not impenetrable, wall against harmful microorganisms.

“Open cuts and scratches aren’t the only entryway for troublesome germs,” says Adams. “Abrasions— for example, caused by friction against fitness mats and hand weights—and blisters from the constant rubbing of athletic shoes can break down skin’s ‘castle wall’ and allow microorganisms to invade the body.”

Sweating, Adams explains, compounds the problem because the skin can become excessively hydrated and leave it more susceptible to forming blisters.

In June, the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology published data showing that a dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacteria— methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)—is becoming more common among athletes.

Although MRSA infections typically emerge in hospitals, Adams says the community-acquired version of the bacteria is showing up in athletes at all levels of competition.

“A combination of factors make athletes more susceptible to MRSA: frequent antibiotic use, compromised skin surfaces, contact between players and teammates and inadequate personal hygiene to name a few,” explains Adams. “Prevention of MRSA is better than a cure, though, so athletes and fitness buffs should make equipment cleanliness a priority.”

Adams recommends the following tips for those who want a relatively germ-free workout but don’t want to waste hours meticulously wiping off gym equipment:

Use hand sanitizer after touching communal equipment. Many high-quality hand sanitizers have been shown to kill up to 99.9 percent of bacteria on the skin that could cause disease. Take advantage of hand sanitation stations at your gym between equipment uses. If they aren’t provided, carry your own small bottle.

Don’t lie directly on community fitness mats. Germ-filled sweat seeps onto fitness mats after each use. In addition to thoroughly wiping your fitness mat, place a clean towel down before lying on it to do crunches or other floor-based exercise. This will help protect you from any residual germs from the previous user and vice versa.

Avoid putting your bare feet on public surfaces. Invest in an inexpensive pair of shower shoes to use after your workout in the shower, locker room at the pool or any other heavy traffic public area. This will help you avoid the fungi that lead to athlete’s foot and unattractive toenail fungus.

Keep a tidy, dry gym bag. Staying germ-free isn’t just about cleanliness in the gym— the same goes for your gym bag. Make sure to keep wet clothing and linens confined in your gym bag during transport. Once you’re home, wash them in hot water and soap as soon as possible to avoid problems.

Protect existing injuries. All existing wounds should be covered. If they can’t be covered fully, take a break from working out until they can be to avoid spreading—and contracting— infections.

“In general, microorganisms love warm, dark and moist places. Gym-goers would do well to remember that the next time they think about stepping into a community shower without foot protection,” adds Adams.

For more information on skin conditions caused by microorganisms, visit

UC Health Line features information and tips for consumers. Read new Health Lines every Thursday or access story archives at

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