Today at the gym I encountered a woman wiping down equipment after each use in a way that seemed excessive. She sprayed her rag with disinfectant after each wipe, using as many as six sprays per machine. I shouldn’t have gotten so annoyed by her attempt at hygiene and courtesy, but I did. I had to wait extra time for a machine she used before me, and I also felt her cleaning was unnecessary. She was wearing pants and didn’t seem to be sweating much, if at all, so was it really important to wipe down the leg pads? Even if sweat had gotten through, did the pad really need to be disinfected? Wasn’t she just adding, if only minuscully, to the problem of super-resistant bacteria?
To hopefully prove myself in the right, as well as increase my scientific knowledge, I decided to research these questions. After reading several articles, I have concluded that I may not have been 100 percent right, but I wasn’t entirely wrong either.
Philip Tierno, professor of microbiology and pathology at NYU, points out, “Of the 60,000 or so germs that people may come in contact with, only about 1 percent are potentially dangerous.”1
Unfortunately, that still leaves many dangerous possibilities. Sweat can carry Hepatitis B,2 and the frightening bacteria MRSA “can survive on gym machines between users.”3 Furthermore, a New York Times article reports, “At any given time [...] one person in three in the United States suffers from a skin disease that can be spread to others, even while in the incubation stage.”4
One scientific finding I read about in two articles is that sweat contains a “natural antibiotic,” Dermcidin, that “can kill a range of bacteria.”5 So if Jane Sixpack at the gym has spread Hepatitis B through a cut in her finger, maybe the sweat she’s also producing could destroy the virus before Joe Jogger steps on the treadmill.
I didn’t read anything about everyone’s sweat being able to kill every kind of pathogen. When I wasn’t sure if sweat even carries bacteria and viruses (I thought it probably did, but didn’t want to assume), these articles seemed to suggest it doesn’t, adding strength to my position. But that would be stretching this finding too far. The fact that one compound in sweat can kill a range of bacteria doesn’t mean all sweat is bacteria-free, to say nothing of viruses.
A Men’s Health article stated, “You only need to worry about bacteria if you touch your mouth, eyes, nose, or any cuts before washing your hands.”6 Perhaps instead of using disinfectant on every touched surface after any use of a machine, gym users should just wash their hands after their workout, and maybe mid-way through as well if they’re moving between different exercises.
If you’re like me and don’t bother with gym towels, it’s hard to avoid touching your face when you’re sweating. The simple solution there, I suppose, is to start bothering with gym towels, but that doesn’t solve the problem of an exposed cut or abrasion touching equipment contaminated by pathogens. Not a problem for every type of exercise, but a problem for some.
From a certain perspective, it’s not the tiny chance of picking up something serious like MRSA at the gym that should be frightening, but the problems caused by the overuse of antibiotic and antiviral products and medications. According to Dr. Brad Spellberg of the L.A. Biomedical Research Institute, “The more antibiotics people are exposed to, the greater the risk that they are going to acquire and keep in their body bacteria resistant to antibiotics.”7 Again, the idea is to wash your hands often while cutting back on antibiotics and antibacterial products.
The gym might be one place where these products are justified. I still think the woman I described in the first paragraph was overdoing it, performing the equivalent of cleaning up an overturned glass of juice with a Clorox wipe or spritz of Lysol. But considering the risks, it does make sense to disinfect certain parts of certain machines, and to be especially thorough if you know you are carrying some sort of pathogen.