You don’t have to adopt a gym rat persona to pick up the benefits of regular exercise, like lower stress and better mental clarity. Expert opinions on the matter suggest the sweet spot for how often you should work out is roughly three times a week for 45 minutes per session.
And if you’re one of the millions of people who step foot in a local gym for a run on the treadmill, a lifting session on the weight room floor, or even a yoga class, there’s one more thing you might be picking up beside a tighter waistline: germs.
When you’re washing up after a particularly sweaty workout session, you might not think twice about using the bathroom sink or taking advantage of the on-site showers – but maybe you should. To find out just how dirty gym locker room surfaces truly are, we conducted a bacterial surface culture analysis of three gym locker room surfaces: the faucet handle, shower handle, and bench. Think you have the stomach to learn just how many germs you could be coming into contact when cooling down? Read on to learn more.
Germs at the Gym
One of the most daunting things about going to the gym might also be one of the biggest ick factors of using the locker room: all of the other people you come in contact with. As if worrying about who might be watching you in various states of undress wasn’t bad enough, you also have to worry about touching the dirtiest gym locker room surfaces.
Turning on the locker room sink to wash your hands or pat down your face may be a normal part of your workout routine, but you may want to reconsider whether it’s smart to use those faucets at all. According to our test swabs, the faucet handle in a gym locker room was the most bacteria-infested surface of all, averaging 545,312 colony-forming units (CFU) per square inch. While the bacteria average was over three times dirtier than any other surface tested, some locker room faucets were even dirtier. A sink handle in one gym locker room recorded over 7 million CFU.
Washing up at the gym might not have the same effect as cleaning up at home either. The average locker room shower handle had over 153,000 CFU. Even sitting down on the locker room bench to tie your shoes could mean coming into contact with over 8,000 CFU.
Many-Faced Locker Room Bacteria
The sheer volume of bacteria may have you thinking about cutting out exercise entirely, but it’s important to recognize that not all germs are created equally. In reality, some bacteria are good for you, and others may have no effect at all.
The average bench surface had over 8,000 CFU, but our test swabs revealed 55 percent of those germs were gram-positive rods, which tend to be harmless to humans. Still, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider wiping down those benches first. Our swabs also showed that roughly 1 in 3 bacteria on gym bench surfaces were gram-positive cocci. Gram-positive cocci are commonly linked to severe health conditions, including pneumonia and septicemia.
The average gym faucet handle showed the highest count of bacteria, and unlike locker room benches, a vast majority of those germs could be dangerous. Fifty-seven percent were gram-negative rods, of which 90 to 95 percent of strains are considered harmful to humans. An action as simple as turning on the faucet to splash cool water on your face could mean coming into contact with germs linked to pneumonia and meningitis.
How Bad Is It Really?
Coming into contact with bacteria is a fact of life. In our bodies, in the foods we eat, and even on the surfaces we touch, bacteria are everywhere – and that isn’t always a bad thing. Of course, certain bacteria can be harmful, and the gym locker room could be a breeding ground for some of these more nefarious germs.
The number of bacteria found on the average gym locker room faucet was high, and potentially even more worrying when you consider the ones tested were roughly eight times dirtier than a school cafeteria water fountain spigot. The average gym shower handle was seven times more contaminated than the average kitchen sink, and the locker room bench had six times the amount of bacteria found inside an animal crate.
Getting the Most Out of Your Workout
Having a regular workout routine is one of the best and most beneficial things you can do for your physical and mental health. More than the things you might learn about yourself and your abilities along the way, setting aside just a few minutes each week to clock a few miles on the treadmill or enjoy a spin class will help boost your mood, improve your energy levels, and keep you feeling stronger inside and out. Of course, you also want to be aware of all the places you might run into heaps of unhealthy bacteria.
According to our test swabs, you should take extra care when handling locker room faucets or shower handles, and consider wiping down the benches before lacing up your sneakers. After all, you’re probably in the gym to pick up good vibes and health habits, not a cold.
We conducted 15 gram and stain culture swab tests across three types of commercial gym locker room surfaces. Each surface type was swabbed five times across four gyms located in the U.S. Swabs were sent to a lab for analysis. Colony-forming units per square inch were averaged for each surface type. Individual surfaces were chosen based on the perceived traffic and accessibility.
It is possible that with a larger sample size of surfaces, we could have gained more insight into CFU levels. No statistical testing was performed, so the claims listed above are based on means alone. As such, this content is exploratory.
Fair Use Statement
After freshening up in the gym locker room (and hopefully avoiding nefarious bacteria), feel free to share this study. We permit you to use the images and content here for noncommercial purposes. Just don’t forget to link back to this page to give the authors proper credit.