Germs at the gym

Find out what's lurking at your local fitness centre and how you can avoid getting sick

The last thing you need is another reason to avoid the gym, right? But if you’re not careful, bacteria, viruses and other nasties lurking on fitness equipment, in hot tubs, even in your water bottle, can result in anything from tummy trouble to itchy rashes. Here’s a guide to where germs commonly lurk, why they’re harmful to your health and how to avoid them.


If a fellow exerciser hasn’t washed her hands after using the washroom and touches the gym equipment, she can transfer staphylococcus aureus (staph bacteria), group A streptococcus (strep bacteria) or even e-coli, according to Dr. Iris Greenwald, a family physician with the Centre for Women’s Health in Richmond Hill, Ont. The bacteria can be transferred to you if you inadvertently touch tainted equipment and then your ears, nose or mouth.

Health hazard: If you have an open cut, staph or strep bacteria can enter the wound and cause skin infections, such as boils, impetigo (blisters or sores on your face) or cellulitis (skin inflammation). E-coli can cause bad stomach flu-type symptoms.

Avoid it: Wipe down the equipment with anti-bacterial solution before and after each use. Many fitness facilities, including Kitsilano Workout in Vancouver, make spritz bottles with anti-bacterial solution available to members. The problem is, not everyone uses them all the time. “I’d estimate about 60 per cent of our members use the spritz bottles,” says marketing manager Darren Weston. So don’t rely on others to keep the equipment clean. Alternatively, use a hand sanitizer with at least 60 per cent alcohol content, when soap and water are not available to wash your hands.

Hot tubs

Warm water makes it easier for bacteria to grow, especially the Pseudomonas bacteria, which can live on your skin and in tap water. This bacteria is transferred from one person to another via the tub water, which can happen when it isn’t chlorinated adequately or if many people are using the hot tub.

Health hazard: Pseudomonas bacteria causes a skin infection which results in a red rash.

Avoid it: Check that your gym chlorinates the hot tub properly and changes the water regularly. Although there are no health guidelines governing gyms specifically, provinces do have regulations regarding spas (hot tubs) and swimming pools. For example, under the Health Promotion and Protection Act in Ontario and the Health Act in British Columbia, hot tubs and swimming pools must be inspected at least once a year (swimming pools are checked quarterly in Ontario). Also, if there is a complaint about a gym, for any reason, even mouldy ceilings, the local health department can investigate.

Swimming pools

If the water in a swimming pool becomes contaminated (from inadequate chlorination or through random fecal matter) and you swallow it, there is the risk of picking up a parasite called Cryptosporidium.

Health hazards: “When you swallow the swimming pool water, the parasite can get into your GI tract and cause gastrointestinal problems diarrhea,” says Dr. Iris Greenwald, family physician, Centre for Women’s Health in Richmond Hill, Ont.

Avoid it: Be cautious about bringing small children who have diarrhea or aren’t fully toilet trained into the pool. Check that your gym cleans and chlorinates the pool regularly.

Saunas, showers and the change room floor

Fungus grows easily in warm, moist conditions. It’s possible to pick up a fungal infection when tiny cracks in your skin come into direct contact with the fungus, like when the bottom of bare feet touch the wet shower or change room floor or when sitting directly on a sauna bench, explains Dr. Michael Libman, director of the division of infectious diseases at McGill University Health Centre in Montreal.

Health hazard: Various types of fungus can cause athlete’s foot, nail infection, ringworm in children and jock itch.

Avoid it: Though many gyms clean their facilities twice a day, due to differing health regulations, it’s still best to take precautions. Wear flip-flops in the change room and shower, and place a towel on the sauna bench to put a barrier between your skin and these surfaces.

Water bottles

When you drink from a water bottle, your backwash leaves behind normal bacteria that is present in your mouth, according to Dr. Michael Libman, director of the division of infectious diseases at McGill University Health Centre in Montreal. This isn’t typically a problem. If you’re ill, however, you can also leave behind the virus or bacteria that is causing your symptoms. If you share your bottle with a friend and she takes a swig, she can ingest the virus.

Health hazards: Colds, flu, diarrhea. “Some diarrhea illness is quite contagious, even after the symptoms have resolved,” warns Dr. Libman.

Avoid it: Wash water bottles with hot water and soap or in the dishwasher as often as you would a drinking glass.

What’s lurking in the…
Equipment Hot tubs Swimming pools Saunas, showers and the change room floor Water bottles