Hygiene in the Gym: How Clean Are Our Fitness Studios?

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Where sweat flows and skin is shown, cleanliness should not be missing. But what about hygiene in gyms: pure pleasure or just gross?

A small survey in the editorial office, by no means representative, but unattractive: “What was the most disgusting thing you have ever come across in the gym?”

After some silly things about unbearable toilet smells, things get serious. “Hair and cut toenails, knotted together in the drain.”

“Sweaty hand and footprints and salt crystals on the yoga mat.” – “A sign in the shower room that specifically asked not to shave intimate shavings. You can clearly imagine what happened there until it was set up.”

You probably also remember at least one disgust find. These descriptions can be isolated cases. Maybe they also reflect German normality?

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Hygiene in the Gym: Data is Missing

Because the fact is: Nobody really knows. More than eleven million German members are in one of the more than 9,300 fitness studios – and the trend is rising. Nevertheless, there is no nationwide study of how clean it is on site.

Neither the Federal Ministry of Health nor the employers’ association of German fitness and health facilities have any studies or data on this.

Reason enough to deal with the question: How hygienic is it really in gyms?

Hygiene – as defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) – contains those conditions and actions that maintain health and prevent the spread of diseases, or more briefly: prevent infections.

Endless Germs in the Gym

A proven criterion for the hazard is the number of germs that can be found on the elliptical machine, dumbbell or rowing ergometer. There are always studies showing how contaminated the studios are.

One found the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus on 75 percent of all devices, which can cause boils and muscle diseases in humans, and in unfavorable cases also pneumonia or mammary gland inflammation.

The fitness blog ellipticalreviews.com, owned by a device manufacturer, took samples of the barbell, yoga mat and a wooden handrail. 153,000 bacteria per square inch (approximately 6.5 cm2) were found on the barbell.

GQ magazine wrote of a “disgust study”: “Hygiene in the gym is worse than in the toilet”. On a toilet seat there are 3,200 bacteria on a comparable surface.

The toughest examples: The United States National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) found 2.7 million bacteria per square inch on taps, particularly those on free-standing donors, including E. coli bacteria and Legionella – triggers of diarrhea or flu-like symptoms.

Fecal Bacteria and Fungi

Another analysis from Malaysia came to the conclusion that poor ventilation or filtering by the air conditioning system means that there is an excessive CO2 load and high infection risks from flu  to tuberculosis, especially during the busy hours  .

Last, but not least: in 95 percent of the whirlpools they examined, microbiologists in Austin, Texas found fecal bacteria, 81 percent in fungi.

A spoonful of the spa water reached 2.17 billion bacteria. For comparison: a spoonful of  tap water  has a maximum of 138 bacteria.

However, all horror studies are only partially meaningful. On the one hand, they do not come from Germany, so the hygienic conditions cannot be transferred one to one. On the other hand, they often treat individual cases.

In addition, they often trade with alarmist benchmarks. “Worse than on a toilet” sounds dramatic, it immediately triggers images in your head – but it’s half as wild.

Even the WDR, who took samples in Cologne’s gyms, found nothing on a public toilet. Because the toilet is rarely the dirtiest place in an apartment.

Refrigerators or keyboards are much better breeding grounds for bacteria and germs than the smooth, dry toilet seat. Far ahead: the dishcloth or sponge.

Gyms Offer an Optimal Climate for Bacteria

Nevertheless, you encounter microscopic fellows during sports, which can cause trouble in the body.

Basically, however, “there is no greater risk for healthy people in the gym than in comparable public spaces, such as a cinema or a swimming pool,” says Dr. Ernst Tabori, medical director of the German Hygiene Advisory Center in Freiburg.

How well the bacilli and viruses feel also depends on the respective indoor climate. Gyms often offer not only warm air, but – thanks to pools, showers , deeper breathing and increased sweating – also moist. Pathogens appreciate this environment, they multiply explosively in it.

Athletes Value Cleanliness

Most of the studios’ operators know that too. They are also aware that hygiene is a decisive criterion for choosing their studio, so they have an economic interest in cleanliness.

According to a representative study, “the price was the most important” for 46 percent, but 44 percent called “cleanliness” almost on an equal footing.

The value is less surprising when you know that the importance of the fitness center is changing.

Of course, many of the members continue to step into the hamster wheel of optimization in order to be fit for the performance society. In the world of Instagram, the corresponding shot of vanity is added.

Health offers for different target groups are comparatively new – programs for best agers and senior citizens are booming. The journal ‘Fitness Management International’ described customers beyond the age of 50 as the second largest fitness trend in 2019.

These customers value high quality standards and individual support. Manja Wiesner, qualified sports scientist and trainer in Eschborn near Frankfurt am Main, says: “In my experience, the demands of the participants increase with the participation fees and the location.”

Hygiene Law With Gaps

The DSSV, the employers’ association of German fitness and health facilities, created the prerequisites for a DIN standard years ago . It was the first such regulation worldwide to come into force in 2013.

The Warentest Foundation, branches of the TÜV, professional associations and health insurance companies were involved in their creation.

However, the hygiene regulations are worded quite loosely: “Training rooms are to be cleaned regularly at the discretion of the operator”, says the standard 33961. How often is “regular”?

The DSSV also makes it clear on its website that self-regulation aims to “give no reason for third-party regulation by the legislature”.

Association spokesman Alexander Wulf also admits that certification according to the DIN standard is not mandatory and “in practice it would be possible to certify compliance with the DIN standard 33961 as a studio.”

Dress Code in the Fitness Studio – Makes Sense?

In certain studios, stricter clothing rules also apply. Meridian Spa caused a stir in the tabloid press in February 2019 because the company ordered the covering of the intimate area for all locations except the sauna – “fulfilling the desire for more discretion”.

At Kieser, in turn, training should only be carried out in knee-length trousers in order to minimize contact between the machine upholstery and the skin. This stems more from a gut feeling-based hygiene concept.

Because from a purely hygienic point of view, Dr. This is not absolutely necessary for healthy, immunocompetent people with intact skin: “Normal body skin basically represents an effectively protective barrier.

As long as it is intact, is not penetrated or comes into contact with dangerous substances, it protects us from the ingress of bacteria. “

Good Germs, Bad Germs

The skin has a natural bacterial flora, the so-called microbiome, “whose bacteria live in symbiosis on the human skin and even prevent germs that cause illness from settling on or nesting on it,” says the specialist for hygiene.

In addition, you should not panic in view of the generally high number of germs, since most germs around us are not pathogenic, i.e. they do not cause any diseases and are usually harmless.

In his view, the naive desire for sterility is similar to the principle that “all animals are dangerous. Just because lions or sharks can be dangerous to us, no one will want to kill the guinea pig of the little daughter right away.”

Animal is not the same animal and germ is not the same germ. In fact, the body of a “model person” – male, 20 to 30 years old, 1.70 meters tall and 70 kilograms – consists of around 30 trillion body cells.

Researchers suspect that at least as many microorganisms lived on and in the body, some even suspect three times the amount. And many of them are vital for the human body, such as digestion.

Where Are Most Bacteria Lurking?

Thousands, millions, billions – when it comes to germs, it is often difficult to correctly estimate a number. Our overview shows you whether you are at peace with the world or exposing yourself to high stress.

  • 50 germs on a freshly washed hand
  • 400 germs on the doorknob
  • 3-4 million germs per cm2 on the smartphone display
  • 10 million germs in a sponge
  • 11 million germs per cm2 in the refrigerator
  • 2.17 billion germs in a spoon of whirlpool water

Sweat is Not a Risk Factor

Even in sweat , germs are not found in disproportionate collections. “I have no problem with sweat at all,” says Wiesner.

“It is the best expression of how much I have done. It is similar with someone else’s sweat. When I touch on corrections, I inevitably come into contact with the sweat.

For me, wet wipes are the solution to quickly cleaning my hands before I touch the next person. But old sweat is a nuisance: no one has to stink! “

Disgust is actually not an objective category, but a subjective one. The ability to disgust is innate, but is only developed in the first years of life. Odors that many adults find disgusting, such as the smell of old sweat , do not bother toddlers.

The defense against inedible food also depends on the culture. Just one example: Many Chinese are extremely disgusted with people who blow their nose into a paper handkerchief and then put it in their pocket.

Conversely, they have no problem spitting on the floor in public. Perhaps this explains in a small part why the studies on disease-causing gyms do not refer to Germany.

In any case, neither the Federal Statistical Office nor the DSSV is aware of a German fitness studio that was closed due to hygienic defects.

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