Other than doing a courtesy wipe for whoever wanted to use my machine next, I typically avoided thinking too hard about inevitable bacteria buildup at the gym.
Then, I moved to New York City, an epicenter for bacteria (think small shared apartments, work cubicles, and . . . the subway). I became hyper aware of the fact that it's nearly impossible to escape contamination.
I began picking my battles, starting with the gym, as it is full of frequently-touched surfaces and wet areas — two breeding grounds for bacteria and germs. I also wanted to find out just how germy the gym really is, so I reached out to Dr. Michael Chang, MD, assistant professor at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth. Dr. Chang has acted as my sanitary North Star and guided me through some best gym practices throughout my internal crisis.
He explained that when moisture is present on a surface (especially one that comes in contact with hands a lot), bacteria and fungal organisms grow better — even viruses usually survive longer.
Wondering what all the fuss is about? Dr. Chang insists that there are two major categories of illness you can get from gym germs: upper respiratory infections and skin infections. Yuck.
Upper respiratory infections include sore throat, flu, and strep throat, for example. Here's where things get really cringy! URI's are spread by contact and droplet transmission, Dr. Chang explains. This means secretions from the nose, mouth, and eyes can be spread as droplets when someone coughs or sneezes, or they can be passed on by contaminated hands.
Throw ignorance out the window, because it gets grosser. As for skin infections, common instances like foot warts and athlete's foot are generally mild to treat and contained to one part of the body, Dr. Chang notes. Circumstances like impetigo, cellulitis, and abscesses can spread quickly to other parts of the body and may need to be treated with antibiotics and even surgery.
Now to our knight in shining armor: the disinfecting wipe. Yes, it most definitely is worth taking the extra three minutes to wipe down the leg extension machine before you hop on and work your quads.
If a gym is using a commercially available brand of wipes, they'll actually fight bacteria, Dr. Chang confirmed. Well, if they are used properly, that is.
According to Dr. Chang, most disinfecting wipes have isopropyl (rubbing alcohol) and/or benzyl ammonium chloride in some combination — the isopropyl works as a disinfectant, while the benzyl ammonium chloride acts as a detergent.
However, Dr. Chang notes that alcohol needs time to do its thing. That means it's crucial to let any freshly-wiped surface air dry before touching it to ensure that it's thoroughly disinfected — doing this will lessen your risk of getting sick.
Do not clean with a disinfecting wipe and then immediately follow-up with a towel or paper towel to dry the surface. Practice patience and allow the alcohol to sit long enough to kill as much as possible — you'll thank me later.