Forget COVID-19. Study reveals the other infectious germs at the gym

Tens of millions of people are already concerned about returning to their local gym due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Now, a new study is warning gym goers that there is more than one invisible threat to their health hiding between dumbbells or on top of exercise equipment.

Researchers from West Chester University collected samples from two on-campus gyms. Subsequent analyses of those samples revealed that gym equipment, exercise machines, and everything in between are pretty much covered in bacteria. Over 400 different strains of bacteria were detected within the samples, and a significant portion of those strains are antibiotic-resistant.

In total, 462 strains of Staphylococcus bacteria were collected from various pieces of exercise equipment or machinery. This type of bacteria causes staph infections, which can induce a host of adverse health symptoms ranging from food poisoning and skin lesions to death if the infection travels deep enough into the body. 

Among all of the identified strains, 43% were found to be ampicillin (a generic antibiotic) resistant. As if that wasn’t concerning enough, 73% of those ampicillin-resistant strains were resistant to two or more other drugs, such as erythromycin and sulfisoxazole.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control reported in 2017 that staph infections had caused 20,000 deaths that year. Most often, staph bacteria gains access to a person’s body via a small cut or break in the skin.

“These results suggest regularly contacted surfaces in different recreational environments can harbor multi-drug resistant S. aureus (MDRSA) and should be disinfected frequently to best maintain public health and community wellbeing,” explains study co-author Chase A. Weikel, a 2018 graduate of West Chester University and current graduate student at Thomas Jefferson University, in a press release.

The research team focused on collecting samples from surfaces most frequently touched by gym-goers. Treadmill handles, barbell handles, kettlebells, and cable pull grips just to name a few. Each one of these surfaces was swabbed and then analyzed within a lab setting. A total of 45 swabbed surfaces revealed the presence of staph bacteria. Then, the specific bacterial strains that showed resistance to ampicillin underwent further testing to gauge their resistance to other antibiotics.

As mentioned earlier, gyms all over the country have already taken a huge hit due to the coronavirus. Many people have even begun to speculate that communal gyms will never fully reach the heights of pre-coronavirus popularity they once enjoyed. Obviously, this study probably isn’t going to help in that regard. 

That being said, these findings don’t necessarily mean that gyms are places to be avoided at all costs either. The coronavirus pandemic is a unique situation, but at a certain point, it will become a thing of the past. Once that happens, there are a variety of ways to mitigate one’s chances of contracting a staph infection at the gym. Always wipe down equipment before and after use, frequently wash your hands, and be sure to keep any wounds, cuts, or even scratches covered or bandaged.

This study is set to be presented in August 2020 at the online American Society for Microbiology Microbe Conference.