Exercise makes many of us feel like we are on top of the world. We feel as though we are invulnerable to getting sick in the gym because we are, after all, doing something good for our health when we’re exercising. But perhaps the risk of illness is just as great inside the gym, which may be dirtier than you think. I interviewed several friends about gym hygiene and the consensus was that communal stretching/yoga mats were likely the most unhygienic items in the gym. These friends told me that the RSF mats had an odor and one friend described the mats as being “flaky on the side.” Descriptions like these certainly sound unpleasant, but could shared mats actually pose a health hazard?
Although most gyms set a goal to disinfect their mats at least once a week, few end up meeting that goal. In fact, the mats at some gyms might remain uncleaned for up to two weeks at a time. Since mats also come into contact with dozens of different people’s sweaty feet and bodies every day, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that mats can be prime breeding grounds for germs, which thrive in warm, moist, dark environments like a rolled up yoga mat or a stack of stretching mats. These germs can cause ailments that are just as debilitating and far more embarrassing than a strained muscle or a cramp could ever be.
Athlete’s foot is one infection that can be picked up from the gym. It is caused by a fungus that can be present on warm, wet surfaces such as damp mats. Athlete’s foot results in itchy and rough skin between your toes. Although you might be going to the gym to try to get an athlete’s body, it’s probably safe to assume that you don’t want to get athlete’s foot.
MRSA is an acronym that stands for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. MRSA is a bacterium that causes staph infections, which manifest themselves most commonly as pimple- or boil-like growths on the skin. Since MRSA grows in warm, moist environments and can be spread through shared equipment, it can easily be transmitted through unclean exercise mats.
Ringworm is yet another skin infection caused by a fungus. Ringworm also grows most readily in warm and moist environments. It produces itchy, red, scaly patches on the skin that are often ring-shaped, and it is yet another reason to be vigilant when using communal mats at the gym.
So when it comes to things like microbes, fungi, and bacteria, maybe you should be sweating the small stuff. Several of the people I interviewed have stated that they lay a clean towel underneath their head when using a mat so that their head won’t touch the mat. Another option is to bring your own bottle of sanitizer. Taking precautions like these whenever you are using a shared exercise mat is a good idea. Otherwise, you may just end up “feeling the burn” in all the wrong places.
- Athlete’s Foot from MedlinePlus by the National Institutes of Health <http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/athletesfoot.html>
- Communal Yoga Mats: Beware of Germs from the New York Times Fashion by the New York Times Company <http://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/27/fashion/27Fitness.html>
- Ringworm from MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia by the National Institutes of Health <http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001439.htm>
- Staphylococcal Infections from MedlinePlus by the National Institutes of Health <http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/staphylococcalinfections.html>
Article by Jersey Deng
Feature Image Source: New Medicine Online