If you’re looking for a reason to skip the gym today, a new study from the fitness equipment review site FitRated.com might seem like it. After swabbing 27 pieces of gym equipment at three different gyms they found that, on average, each machine was teeming with more than one million colony-forming units (CFU) of bacteria. To show just how germy this is, they drew comparisons to other dirty surfaces. An exercise bike has 39 times more bacteria than a reusable cafeteria tray. Free weights have 362 times more bacteria than a toilet seat, and a treadmill has 74 more times more bacteria than a water faucet. Disgusting enough to stay on the couch, right?
We wouldn’t be so sure. Though the study broke down the average CFU into percentages of types of bacteria (gram-positive cocci, gram-negative rods, gram-positive rods, and bacillus) those are just general types of bacteria—not specific names of pathogens that would cause alarm. People generally carry a ton of germs on the skin, and they impart them wherever they go through contact through skin, nasal carriage area, and through your feces (sorry germaphobes).
“While there is potential of harmful bacteria present, it’s not a given that you’re going to be infected, says Dr. Philip M. Tierno, professor of microbiology and pathology at the School of Medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York and author of The Secret Life of Germs. “You can reduce that possibility by washing your hands prior to touching conduits of entry into your body.”
Besides washing your hands before and after using equipment, and refraining from touching your eyes, nose or mouth while using equipment, there are a few other things you can do to stay safe. First, wipe off the germs with a sanitary wipe before you use a machine and properly dispose of it in the trash (in other words: don’t leave it in the cup holder!). Also don’t workout if you’re sick, and wash your gym clothes when you get home.
But overall, your risk from getting sick from a germy gym is extremely low to nil, even if those numbers sound scary. “It’s not a surprising thing, nor is it alarming,” says Tierno. “Don’t let that toilet business fool you.”