When you think of a surface in the gym with lots of germs and general grossness, your first pick might be something like a locker room bench. But according to a new study, volleyballs and basketballs could also be homes for bacteria.
A recent study presented at a meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine showed that Staphylococcus aureus bacteria can survive on a sports ball for three days in typical storeroom conditions. And even if a ball is sterilized, it can accumulate the bacteria when it's used.
"The overwhelming prevalence of Staph. aureus we encountered supports our understanding of the gym environment as a reservoir of germs," Joshua A. Cotter, a postdoctoral fellow in orthopedic surgery at the University of California, Irvine, who supervised the study, said in a statement. "Institutions, coaches, and athletes should take note of the role the sports ball can play as a vehicle for the transmission of potentially life-threatening germs."
The study was conducted as an undergraduate project by students at UC Irvine. For their study, the researchers analyzed the threat of Staph. aureus in three different settings: on the gym floor, on the hands of players, and on volleyballs and basketballs. For each setting, researchers either looked at levels of Staph. aureus on the surface in its natural state, as well as after it had been sterilized using a ultraviolet C light (or antibacterial soap, in the case of the players' hands).
Researchers then had players use the balls in the gym as they would during regular play. The more the players handled the balls, the more Staph. aureus accumulated, they found -- even when they had been sterilized beforehand.
Another gross germ hotspot at the gym? The water fountain, according to a 2011 study from Coverall Cleaning. Click through the slideshow for more germy gym spots:
"We found more bacteria on the drinking fountains than even on the toilets," says Sheldon. His number one piece of advice is just to bring a pre-filled bottle of water from home. If you do need to refill your water bottle on the gym floor, Sheldon recommends touching the fountain with a towel instead of your hands to avoid germs.
Child Care Centers
If your gym has a child care area, odds are it's not being cleaned properly, if at all, says Sheldon. While there's not a lot you can do to avoid picking up germs that may lurk in the centers, Sheldon suggests going to gym management and asking how the areas are being cleaned. "Putting pressure on the management to institute a cleaning process can be very effective," he says.
Weight Machines And Freeweights
"You almost always see people wiping down cardio equipment -- cardio equipment is generally very clean -- but weight lifting machines and dumbbells are not getting wiped down," says Sheldon. To avoid germs when using weights, make sure to wipe off the equipment before <em>and</em> after you use them. Sheldon also recommends being cognizant of how often you touch your face -- we do it up to 18 times an hour, so if you can scale back at the gym by being aware of the habit, you can reduce your risk of picking anything up.
"In almost every gym we went into, we found they weren't cleaning the mats at all," says Sheldon. "If you're going to use a mat, the best choice is to bring your own." If you don't own a mat, Sheldon recommends bringing disinfectant wipes or wiping down the mat with disinfectant spray before you use one of the gym's.
The Locker Room
"The floor is the main hot spot in a locker room -- never go barefoot in there," says Sheldon. There are myriad fungal infections you could encounter barefoot in a locker room, warns Sheldon. He also recommends bringing your own shampoo, conditioner and soap if your gym has refillable containers in the shower -- those can be breeding grounds for bacteria. Sheldon also advises avoiding sitting with bare skin anywhere in a locker room. He suggests sitting on a towel instead, and if you're <em>really</em> serious, bringing your own towel, since you can't be sure how the towels are being laundered.