Gym Germs: How to Avoid These Unwanted Training Partners - Spar Soap | Natural Soap for Combat Athletes

Gym Germs: How to Avoid These Unwanted Training Partners

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We’ve all heard the horror stories about gym germs. A life-threatening, antibiotic-resistant staph infection contracted at the gym. A persistent, unsightly, and very itchy case of athlete’s foot. A global pandemic. 

Headlines have warned for years about gym germs that lurk on your favorite gym equipment. That’s because gyms combine physical activity, frequent surface touching, and people with different personal hygiene practices. But what kinds of infections can you get from the gym? And more importantly, what can you do to prevent them? 

Common Skin Infections from Gym Germs

Certain types of infection-causing bacteria, viruses, and fungi thrive in the gym’s warm, damp environment. Research has found that bacteria that cause skin infections are on 10% to 30% of gym surfaces.1 You can get skin infections from touching any surface, including towels, mats, equipment, and the floor.

Staph Infections

Staphylococcus, also known as staph, is one of the most prevalent and dangerous bacteria found in gyms and athletic facilities. Its variant, methicillin-resistant S. aureus (MRSA), is resistant to antibiotics and is estimated to result in 11,000 deaths a year in the United States.2

In one Ohio study, 28% of the 288 samples taken contained S. aureus. This bacteria was found on 62.5% of medicine balls, 62.5% of plyometric boxes, 56.3% of weight plates, and 50% of treadmill handles sampled. Interestingly, toilet handles and bathroom door handles were the least contaminated with S. aureus, at only 18.8%.2

MRSA can live on gym equipment, mats, towels, benches, and in locker rooms. In a 2014 study on fitness centers in Memphis, TN, staph bacteria was found on every piece of exercise equipment tested.3 Intentional skin-to-skin contact, such as during wrestling and martial arts training, is also a risk factor for MRSA transmission.4

Perhaps surprisingly, staph bacteria commonly live on our skin without causing any issues. Infection occurs when staph enters your body through a cut or opening.

Symptoms of a staph infection include painful red boils that appear swollen. The area may feel warm to the touch and may also secrete fluid.5

Staph often passes from person to person, which is why we commonly see infections from this gym germ in contact sports like wrestling, MMA, and Brazilian jiu-jitsu. It can also pass from objects to people. 

Treatment of staph infection varies, so see a doctor if you think you have one.

gym bacteria viruses fungi germs


Ringworm is a very common skin infection caused by dermatophytes, a type of fungi. Dermatophytes feed on a protein found in hair, nails, and the outer layer of skin. These fungi can survive on the skin’s surface for months. They can also live on objects like clothes, towels, hairbrushes, and the mats where you train.

Ringworm spreads primarily through skin-to-skin contact. Anyone can get it, but some people are at a higher risk for ringworm than others. Not everyone who comes into contact with this gym germ will show symptoms. It is possible that your immune system protects you from getting a rash, but you may still be a carrier.

Ringworm rash usually appears red, itchy, scaly, and ring-shaped. It often includes hair loss to the area. The circular patches can grow over time, and the patches can spread to different parts of the body.

Ringworm can typically be treated with over-the-counter creams. If the rash doesn’t go away with treatment, see a dermatologist.6

Plantar Warts

Plantar warts are hard, grainy, or fleshy growths typically found on the soles of the feet. They can be painful. They are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV), which invades the skin through cuts or scrapes.7

Many people contract HPV without noticing symptoms. Plantar warts are commonly spread in damp areas like communal pools and showers – a favorite of gym germs – as well as athletic facilities where bare feet are the norm. Sorry, martial artists!

Plantar warts don’t go away on their own and are difficult to treat. Consult your doctor if you think you have a wart.


Impetigo is a skin infection caused by strep or staph bacteria, including MRSA. It typically shows up as itchy blisters filled with pus that can burst and form a yellow crust. A rash that starts out as a single spot can spread to other areas due to itching.8

Like other bacterial infections, impetigo takes hold when staph or strep bacteria enters the skin through a cut. It can also occur when there is no visible break in the skin. You can be exposed to this bacteria by sharing towels, touching gym equipment, or coming into contact with others in the gym.

If you have any symptoms of impetigo, talk to your doctor. While the cure rate is high, the infection can spread to other parts of the body when it’s not treated. It is usually treated with antibiotics or antibacterial cream.

Respiratory Illness from Gym Germs

In case you’ve started to think of the gym as a germ-infested wasteland of disease and destruction, let me lighten the mood. 

You probably know that respiratory infections like colds and the flu spread easily in close quarters. Germs enter your body through droplets that people cough, sneeze, and breathe out. Of course, this can happen in gyms. 


Take rhinovirus, which is the main virus that gives us a cold. While studies have found rhinovirus on gym equipment,9 other studies have found that rhinovirus placed on surfaces in an environment with 50% humidity – typical for gyms – starts to disappear within minutes.10 Given that rhinovirus usually spreads from person to person, it’s not very likely that you’ll catch a cold just from touching gym equipment or being at the gym. But you might want to avoid a training partner who is actively sneezing or coughing! 

The best protection from the flu is to get your annual flu shot. When sick with a cold or flu, see a doctor if:

  • symptoms last longer than 10 days
  • symptoms are concerning or unusual
  • you are at high risk for complications from the flu

So far, research does not suggest a causal relationship between gym attendance and respiratory illness in individuals.3 

Avoiding Gym Germs

A little effort can go a long way toward reducing your risk of infection. You may not have control over your gym’s sanitizing practices or ventilation, but you can control your own actions. Good hygiene before, during, and after your gym visit is the number one way to prevent infection.3 

Wash Your Hands

Washing your hands makes a bigger difference than you probably thought possible. It not only keeps your hands clean, it can “reduce bacterial populations on wrestlers and alter bacterial community structure on the mats”.11 If your gym has hand sanitizer at the front, use some when you arrive and when you leave. You don’t want everyone else’s sweat on your steering wheel, do you?

Check the Equipment

Before you use any equipment at the gym, make sure it is in good condition. Note any cracks or breaks in the material – that is where gym germs can get in and get comfortable. If you have to use equipment that is likely harboring a lot of bacteria, wash your skin thoroughly afterwards. 

Cover Up Cuts

Make sure any cuts or wounds are covered before you hit the gym. When you block off the entrances, gym germs can’t get in as easily. This reduces the chance of skin infection. 

Wipe Down Equipment

For your sake and the sake of your fellow gym-goers, clean all equipment before and after you use it with the gym’s provided wipes or sprays. This includes non-machinery equipment such as medicine balls and dumbbells. 

Avoid Peak Hours

One study found that the risk of respiratory infections like influenza and tuberculosis was higher during times when occupancy and CO2 levels were high.12 If you’re concerned about respiratory illness and your gym has insufficient ventilation, consider training outside of peak hours.

Don’t Touch Your Face

Bacteria are easily transmitted by hand, so try not to touch your eyes, mouth and nose with your fingers or palms while in a gym. If you must, do any mid-workout wiping with the back of your hand.

Don’t Touch Your Rash

It might be tempting, but avoid touching, scratching, or picking at any rashes, sores, or warts. This can spread the infection to other parts of your body AND to others at the gym. Don’t be the source of nasty gym germs!

Don’t Train with an Infection

This should go without saying, but if you have a respiratory illness or skin infection, don’t train. Covering up your skin infection doesn’t count – you can still spread it. Keep everyone safe by waiting until you are no longer contagious.

Wait on the Protein Bar

Avoid handheld food during and soon after gym visits.

Shower Immediately

As soon as you can after exercising, take a shower with soap to remove any germs that may have come onto your skin when you were working out. Use a soap with natural antimicrobial properties that also moisturizes your skin, like Spar Soap

Shower Smarter (and Mind Your Feet)

If you shower at the gym, never share towels or soap. Bacterial infection via the feet is unlikely unless you have an opening in the skin, like a cut or a blister. But fungal infections like athlete’s foot are another matter. Wear sandals in the shower and avoid walking barefoot to prevent infections. As an extra precaution, you can apply an over-the-counter antifungal spray to your shoes and feet after gym workouts.

Wash Your Clothes – Even If They Don’t Seem Dirty

Make sure your clothes are washed and dried regularly. Gym germs can survive on clothes for hours to days, so it doesn’t matter if they pass the sniff test. Wash them after the gym no matter what.

Should You Avoid the Gym Entirely?

No way! Whether you like it or not, your skin and environment are crawling with bacteria, fungi, waste, and human cells. In fact, a whopping 33% of the population carries Staphylococcus aureus in their noses, usually without illness.13 And about 2 out of 100 people carry MRSA without developing a serious infection. Most people only become aware of these microbes when their immune system is compromised or when they have surgery.

The benefits of exercise far outweigh the risk of contracting a disease or infection at the gym. 

Do What You Can to Avoid Gym Germs, But Don’t Overthink It 

There is a risk of picking up skin infections or respiratory illnesses at the gym. Personal hygiene, ventilation, and surface cleaning are some of the main factors that affect this risk. You can’t always control how and how often the equipment in your gym is sanitized, but you can control your own hygiene habits. Good hygiene before, during, and after your gym visit is the best thing you can do to prevent infection.

Be aware, but don’t overthink it. The physical and mental benefits to your health outweigh the potential risk of infection. Take steps to keep you and your training partners clean and safe, but there’s no need to live in fear!



  1. Increasing the post-use cleaning of gym equipment using prompts and increased access to cleaning materials
  2. Characterizing the molecular epidemiology of Staphylococcus aureus across and within fitness facility types
  3. Diversity of Bacterial Communities of Fitness Center Surfaces in a U.S. Metropolitan Area
  4. The skin in the gym: a comprehensive review of the cutaneous manifestations of community-acquired methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus infection in athletes
  5. Staphylococcal Infections
  6. Ringworm
  7. Plantar warts
  8. Impetigo
  9. Prospective study of bacterial and viral contamination of exercise equipment
  10. Survival of human rhinovirus type 14 dried onto nonporous inanimate surfaces: effect of relative humidity and suspending medium
  11. Clean Hands→ Healthy Wrestlers: Effectiveness of Hand Cleaning in Reducing Bacterial Load During Wrestling Competitions
  12. Infection risk in gyms during physical exercise
  13. Healthcare Settings: Preventing the Spread of MRSA