Magnify the Disgusting Truth Behind Bacteria and Viruses in the GymDec 13, 2021
by Doc Mok
The gym was a source of mindfulness and relaxation for me, but no longer. Despite my love for the culture and quality surroundings delivered by my gym, I am reluctant to return. With the potential for infection at the doorstep, gym owners are now forced to play the role of healthcare provider and sometimes bouncer. Yet, was the gym ever clean? This week at Maximal Being we Magnify the Disgusting Truth Behind Bacteria and Viruses in the Gym.
Classically Associated Bacteria and Viruses in the Gym
Those of you that have been involved in competitive fitness, are aware of the common characters. Athlete’s foot, ringworm, and the early 90s hot bug, Staph infections have held the spotlight for years. Among these, the athlete’s foot or Tinea pedis (fungus on the foot) is by far the most common pathogen in the fitness environment. This is a fungus that resiliently lives in water-loving areas such as showers. Walk into such an environment without shower shoes and you may be itchy for life.
Also, a fungus with cumbersome, but not life-threatening consequences is ringworm. To reiterate ring WORM is NOT a worm. It is a fungus or dermatophytosis termed Tinea corpis (fungus on the body). This fungus lives on similar shared surfaces and can pop up in a classic ring fashion on the body or scalp. Treatment is also a prolonged on the skin anti-fungal or there is some benefit in apple cider vinegar, coconut oil or turmeric topically. The most important thing, these common infections are not going to kill you, they are just annoying.
Staph Bacteria in the Gym
On the flip side is the staph infection. Staph NOT staff is a bacteria that lives naturally on our skin. Just as I have previously stressed the importance of the microbiome (see our article on the gut microbiome science HERE and How to Transform Your Gut Microbiome Here), the skin microbiome protects us from outside invaders and is the BIGGEST IMMUNE (Learn about Immunity HERE) organ in the body.
However, just as we discussed in our immunity article (HERE), sometimes our natural immune system can be hijacked or altered leading to dangerous effects. Enter MRSA or the Staph infection. What MRSA stands for, is a specific type of Staph aureus bacteria that has developed a mutation to methicillin, a cousin to penicillin. So yes, people did this.
MRSA lives in most healthcare facilities and in the noses of 15% of healthcare workers and food industry workers. The good news is that absent an open wound or immunocompromise you are likely okay. However, cases of MRSA can be deadly if left untreated. So that healthcare worker lifting in their scrubs, yup! It is not that person’s fault solely, but these superbugs are becoming more and more common in the community and in our gyms.
How Common Are Bacteria in the Gym?
Talking MRSA, a trial in 2010, before our present era, tested gym surfaces, yielding astonishing results. Over 90% of gyms had 2 or more surfaces test positive for MRSA and 46.7% of surfaces yielded a culture that was positive, meaning a high concentration of MRSA.
Similar results were reported in this Memphis study. In 2016, Ohio gym surfaces were tested for numerous bacterial entities. Staph was among the players, as were gut bugs such as Klebsiella and Salmonella that cause GI illness. Among the most common bacteria were the non-pathogenic gut microbiome bugs Firmicutes, which is not deadly, but disturbs me just the same.
Allow me to re-emphasize that statement, the GI bacteria were the most common. Let that sink in. Yes, that means the bugs got onto the surfaces in that gym via the gut (mouth or anus). Think about that the next time you are doing a shoulder series with you chest on a bench. This point also bring up which surfaces are the most likely to carry bacteria.
Saunas and Hand Surface Carry the Most Bacteria in the Gym
As a general concept, one may think that surface sharing a common space with the GI track would be the most likely culprits. This is partially true. In a study performed in 2000, MRSA infections were 3 times more likely to be caused by the sauna than other surfaces. Likely due to the combination of access to the gut and heat which will lead to more moisture, which bacteria love.
On the other hand, the aforementioned Ohio study looked at specific equipment harboring bacteria. The authors concluded that the most common surfaces with bacteria included hand surfaces. Namely, the medicine ball, box, cables, and curl bar (63%), weight plates (56%), treadmill handle (50%). Adding further interest, the bathrooms were actually the cleanest places in the gym with handles having the lowest rates of bacteria.
However, times have changed since these studies. Now viruses have taken center stage. With this in mind, let’s see what the science shows.
How Common Are Viruses in the Gym?
In 2006, a study was performed in military gyms. Surfaces were cultured, yielding 63% of surfaces growing some type of virus, namely rhinovirus. The most infectious equipment were again hand surfaces. Weight equipment was positive for viruses 73% of the time and aerobic equipment 51% of the time.
The most startling was AFTER wiping down the equipment, 86% of surfaces STILL HAD VIRUS. Now, we know that alcohol can help get rid of the coronavirus, so this does not completely translate. However, it is not the end-all-be-all way to prevent getting a virus at the gym
The Coronavirus in the Gym Research
Generally, there exists limited data on this subject at present and most of the information out there is opinion-based. However, in Norway, scientists studied 4,000 people during the present coronavirus era. Of these gym-goers, only 1 person tested positive for COVID-19 and this person did not require hospitalization.
Encouraging, yes, however, it should be known that Norway did an excellent preventative job. The rates of COVID-19 in Norway at the time of the study were about 24 people/day, much lower than our numbers here in the United States. So, now that I have scared you, are people going back and if they are, what can be expected?
Going Back with Bacteria and Viruses in the Gym
A study in Time Magazine surveyed Americans regarding their potential gym habits. Of those surveyed 20% felt comfortable returning. Personally, I am not returning at this time not as much for the risk of my health, but even more so due to the preservation of my mental health.
Us healthcare workers wear N95s and masks, sometimes face shields all day to prevent endangering our co-workers and our patients. This mask feels like someone is smooshing your face for our 8-12 hour workday. So the last thing I want to do is wear that during my decompression period. By the way, I have tracked my pulseox during these time periods and it has never dropped while wearing a mask. If you want to return, what should you do to stay safe and keep others safe?
Stay Safe in Your Gym and Keep Others Safe from Bacteria and Viruses
Gym goers and owners alike should be aware of their own knowledge gaps. Understand that most people are not healthcare and only know what is told to them to keep you safe. An environment of collaboration and mutual respect is the MOST IMPORTANT part (See our article on gym etiquette).
If you have symptoms at all, respiratory, fevers, or GI. Just stay home and realize you can infect others. We can help you with home workouts, if you need them, with or without equipment. Know the rates and risks in your area. Be mindful of the size and ventilation of your gym, and if it is too small, consider outside workouts. Of course, wipe down all equipment, especially hand surfaces (above). Wear a mask and maintain distancing like everyone is telling you to do.
Summary of Magnify the Disgusting Truth Behind Bacteria and Viruses in the Gym
Bacteria and Viruses existed in the gym long before the time of COVID-19. MRSA, athlete’s foot, ringworm and GI bugs have been found commonly in the gym. Be aware of hand surfaces, saunas and the impact of hygiene practices like wiping surfaces down. If you do return, be considerate of others and if you develop symptoms STAY HOME! Needs a home workout, we have got you!