Ew: This piece of gym equipment could be dirtier than your toilet

Hand weights in the gym
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Sure, you’re probably going to the gym to lift some weights, or run on the treadmill (if you are doing the latter, check out the best treadmill workouts to try). But have you ever stopped to think about just how gross the equipment at the gym is? One study looked into just this and the results are pretty horrifying. However, it's important to caveat this study was done before the coronavirus pandemic, so hopefully the equipment at your local gym is now being sterilized more thoroughly. 

This study by FitRated.com analyzed bacterial samples from 27 different pieces of common gym equipment at three different gyms to work out which was the most unhygienic piece of exercise equipment you’re likely to use. The grossest culprits: exercise bikes, treadmills, and free weights. 

Researchers found that the treadmill had the highest amount of bacteria — a score of 1,333,432 colony-forming units (CFU) per square inch. That is 74 times more bacteria than you’d find on a public water faucet in a park. (If this puts you off, we’ve rounded up the best treadmills you can install in your home here). 

Next up, was the exercise bike which had a total score of 1,333,418 CFU. That’s 39 times more bacteria than you’d find on a plastic reusable cafeteria tray. Finally, the third-highest culprit was free weights, which had a score of 1,158,381 CFU, which is 362 times more bacteria than the average toilet seat, which has a score of 3,200 CFU — gross. (Again, if this makes you want to move your exercise routine to your home, we’ve found the best exercise bikes and the best adjustable dumbbells for a more hygienic workout). 

A little dirt is fine, right? Well, kind of, however, researchers found that all three types of gym equipment had "gram-positive cocci," which can cause skin infections. There were also gram-negative rods which can cause many different types of infections, and sometimes resist antibiotics. The exercise bikes and free weight samples also had Bacillus, which can cause ear, eye, and respiratory infections. 

Wiping down gym equipment

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

How should you protect yourself from bacteria in the gym? 

Of course, we’re not trying to put you off going to the gym — exercise is incredibly important for both your physical and your mental health. Instead, this study shines a light on what we already know — gyms are breeding grounds for bacteria. To stay safe in the gym, the researchers behind this study recommend: 

Washing your hands after touching equipment. Seems simple right? We’ve all gotten a lot better at remembering to wash our hands over the past year, but remember to do this before touching your face in the gym. 

Disinfect machines before and after you use them. Your gym should provide sanitizing equipment, and this is one of the best ways to stay safe.

Never walk around barefoot. This is important for a number of safety reasons, but also to protect your feet from harmful viruses. 

Change out of your gym clothes immediately after a workout. Another one that might sound simple, but if you’re someone who heads to the gym at lunch, then sits in your kit till you head home that evening, sitting in sweaty clothes isn’t good for your skin, especially if there are harmful bacteria on it. 

Jane McGuire
Fitness editor

Jane McGuire is Tom's Guide's Fitness editor, which means she looks after everything fitness related - from running gear to yoga mats. An avid runner, Jane has tested and reviewed fitness products for the past five years, so knows what to look for when finding a good running watch or a pair of shorts with pockets big enough for your smartphone. When she's not pounding the pavements, you'll find Jane striding round the Surrey Hills, taking far too many photos of her puppy.