Physical activity is hardly dainty: Sweat is proof of athletic effort, the natural result of hustling. But when your workout concludes, how conscientious are you of your hygiene? Do you meticulously wipe down the machine you were using? Are you fastidious about laundering your exercise attire, or do you wear the same gear for several workouts in a row?
These questions concern more than mere cleanliness. Gyms can be breeding grounds for infectious bacteria, while wearing sweaty clothes can wreak havoc on your skin. Moreover, exercise hygiene involves issues of empathy: Will you risk exposing others to your germs and body odor?
We surveyed over 1,000 individuals who exercise in a gym at least once a week, analyzing their hygiene habits. A significant percentage claimed to be extremely concerned about the cleanliness of their gyms, and only a small fraction claimed not to be concerned at all.
Our findings suggest that, in reality, exercisers can be pretty relaxed on sanitary matters. From failing to clean workout gear to skipping post-gym showers, patterns of questionable cleanliness were all too common. If you’re ready to learn the gross truths our survey uncovered, keep reading.
Workout attire can get painfully putrid: Sometimes, the scent of sweat can linger even after you’ve washed your clothes. It’s somewhat alarming, then, to learn that 44% of women and 55% of men we surveyed said they’ve reworn sweaty items for another workout. In fact, some individuals in this camp wore their garments for more than two consecutive workouts, dousing them with several doses of perspiration.
While this approach probably subjects other gym members to off-putting smells, it can also raise issues for those who wear the sweaty clothing. Sweat-soaked items accumulate bacteria, which can cause acne after prolonged contact with one’s skin. In rare but serious cases, unwashed workout clothing can also cause yeast and urinary tract infections.
If gymgoers often wear sweaty clothes, are they more attentive to the other gear they typically use? Most respondents washed their towels after every workout but cleaned other exercise items much less often. Wearable technology was particularly unlikely to get sanitized regularly: Of those who had a fitness tracker, 28% said they’d never cleaned theirs before. Similarly, a third of headphone users said they’d never given them a good cleaning – despite the fact that earbuds are positively teeming with bacteria.
While many respondents were somewhat lackadaisical about cleaning their own gear, they often took precautions to avoid germs from others. More than 6 in 10 gymgoers reported bringing their own towels, and 54% made sure to keep shoes on in the locker and shower areas. According to experts, these precautions may be prudent. Infections like athlete’s foot are highly contagious and can easily be contracted from locker room floors. Indeed, among respondents who contracted an illness of some kind at the gym, athlete’s foot was the most common ailment. Ringworm, the second-most commonly contracted infection, can be spread via contact with towels and other objects.
Slightly less than half of gymgoers said they wiped down equipment before they used it: Perhaps many exercisers assume that the person before them has cleaned the equipment already. Additionally, about 31% steered clear of the water fountain in their gym in an effort to avoid bacteria. While germs do lurk on water fountains, their knobs and buttons are the true problem areas – the spout itself is less likely to be contaminated. Regardless of what you touch during your workout, however, handwashing is a good idea. While physicians recommend washing your hands before and after each workout, 31% of respondents went even further, washing or sanitizing after using each machine. Regardless if you’ve been working out on a running treadmill or a walking treadmill, you will still sweat and transfer to the equipment you’re working out on even if you don’t physically touch the machine or hold on to the railings.
Beyond going to the gym in sweaty gear, which other hygiene transgressions are gymgoers guilty of? The most common mistake raised the risks of infection: 60% of exercisers reported touching their faces, mouths, or eyes after using equipment and before washing their hands. A majority had exposed others to germs as well, failing to wipe down the equipment they’d used. More concerning still, 40% admitted to sweating on machines and not wiping up their perspiration. This behavior is quite bold, given that the uncleaned sweat may be visible to the machine’s next user.
Over a third of respondents had gone to the gym while sick, potentially infecting other members. While some people attempt to exercise while under the weather to “sweat out” their illnesses, there’s little evidence to support this approach. Furthermore, exertion while ill is often a risky proposition, so everyone benefits when sick exercisers stay home.
Some basic hygiene standards were also flaunted with alarming frequency: More than 17% of individuals had used the restroom and returned to working out without washing their hands. More than 4% admitted to spitting on the floor, while a similar percentage said they’d used another member’s towel. While these offenses seem to have less to do with exercise than fundamental etiquette, our results imply that these behaviors may be happening at a gym near you.
While getting sweaty at the gym is entirely acceptable, you’ll probably need a shower before your next appearance in public, whether it be work or a social event. More than half of gymgoers said they shower immediately upon arriving home from the gym.
Another 24% said they shower at the gym after finishing their workouts. These findings suggest that given the choice to return home and shower, most people will opt to do so. After all, even the nicest locker rooms can’t provide the privacy of home, and there’s a certain pressure to bathe and dress briskly.
Accordingly, a large percentage of exercisers reported driving directly home after sweaty workouts. Still, more than half admitted to running errands after a gym session, and 43% said they’d relaxed on the couch at home before getting up and showering. Additionally, 39% said they’d made a meal before showering, which could actually reflect sound dietary advice: Most experts recommend consuming some food within 30 minutes of completing a workout, even if it’s just a healthy snack.
Unfortunately, many respondents admitted to a much wider range of activities before their post-workout shower. Over 9% went straight to work after a sweaty workout, while 14% dined at a restaurant. Furthermore, nearly 7% said they’d engaged in intimate activity with a partner before rinsing off. Studies do show that exercise can increase one’s sex drive, so perhaps respondents were unwilling to delay their romantic urges long enough to shower first.
Eliminating Exercise Exposure
Our data certainly suggests that small sanitary failures often occur, both at the gym and after exercising. And while exercisers often take prudent precautions, encountering others’ germs seems more or less inevitable. Even those with rigorous hygiene habits occasionally make mistakes or find themselves forced to go directly from the gym to another obligation. What can we do to fend off illness – and keep from spreading germs ourselves?
One possibility is better planning: Often, lapses in exercise hygiene occur because someone is too rushed to adequately sanitize themselves or their stuff. As you schedule your workouts in the days to come, carve out a bit more time to ensure that you can clean as well as you intend to. With that added leeway, you can thoroughly erase others’ germs – and make sure you’re not leaving your own behind.
Methodology and Limitations
We collected 1,008 responses from gymgoers who attended a physical gym location at least once per week. Respondents were comprised of 80 baby boomers, 246 people from Generation X, 627 millennials, 53 from Generation Z, and two from the silent generation. We had 507 female and 497 male participants, with four respondents choosing not to answer.
Respondents who answered “yes” to the question asking if they had ever contracted an illness or bacterial/fungal infection they suspected was from a surface or interaction at the gym were asked to follow up by providing the name of the illness or bacterial/fungal infection. Many respondents chose not to answer. Write-in answers were combined, and anything with three or more mentions was included in our rankings. Sample sizes were: athlete’s foot (15), ringworm (12), a rash or skin problem (6), a wart (5), a cold (5), a staph infection (3), and a fungus (3).
Similar to any survey, data rely on respondents self-reporting their habits. There are many issues with this, including but not limited to exaggeration, summarization, selective memory, and, in some cases, lying. To help prevent this, an attention-check question was included.
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Fair Use Statement
Know an avid exerciser who could benefit from this info? Feel free to send them our project – and encourage them to make hygiene a healthy priority. If you do share our images and data, please do so only for noncommercial purposes. Additionally, please link back to this page to attribute our team appropriately.