Gym Buffs Beware: Your Exercise Mat Could Give You an Infection

man performing a plank on a blue exercise mat as a woman times him

Man doing a plank on an exercise mat | Source: iStock

Wearing your grimy gym clothes a second time without a thorough washing is unthinkably disgusting, yet this mentality rarely translates to using an exercise mat. These fitness tools come in contact with everything from sweaty bodies to shoe bottoms, so it’s a little gross to think many gym goers and yogis simply store their mats without cleaning immediately after they’re done. And stinky odors should be the least of your worries.

You’ve probably heard bacteria thrive in warm, moist environments. This is why professional kitchens are so diligent with properly cooling and storing food. Without such careful attention to detail, the food could easily become contaminated. The same is true of exercise mats or any other type of gym equipment. Need proof? One recent report from FitRated decided to test 27 different types of fitness tools at three different gyms, and the results were a little gross. According to the study authors, free weights harbor 362 times more bacteria than a toilet seat.

It’s important to remember not all bacteria are bad. For example, some of the kinds in our gut are crucial for properly digesting food and absorbing nutrients. There’s even reason to believe keeping these types of bacteria healthy is one of the best ways to combat obesity. Still, the FitRated study reported that 70% of the bacteria found through their testing are potentially harmful.

close-up of a partially rolled yoga mat

Green yoga mat | Source: iStocks

Though exercise mats weren’t singled out, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine they’re similarly disgusting. In fact, thicker mats almost encourage bacteria to form a nice little village. Usually the go-to choice for yogis with bad knees — extra-thick mats are more porous than slimmer models. Even if you’re diligent about scrubbing down the surface with sanitizer, there’s no good way to clean beyond that even though sweat can easily seep through the sponge-like texture.

Dermatologists have been wary of yoga mats and similar equipment for years. In a 2006 interview with The New York Times, one dermatologist estimated he’d seen a 50% increase in cases of plantar warts and athlete’s foot in just two years, which he largely attributed to dingy exercise mats. And this goes to show that bacteria isn’t the only culprit because athlete’s foot is a fungal infection while warts are caused by a virus.

In 2010, the National Athletic Trainers’ Association released a report highlighting just how many different types of skin infections you can get from bad fitness hygiene. While many cases come from skin-on-skin contact, the authors said indirect transmission can easily occur with fitness equipment that hasn’t been properly sanitized. In all honesty, the odds that the mats at your gym have been cleaned properly is pretty unlikely. While bottles of sanitizing spray are abundant, there’s no way to make sure people actually use them. Furthermore, it’s even less likely that someone who’s in a hurry is going to take the time to track down more cleaning solution if a bottle is empty.

person squeezing a spray bottle over a black background

Spray bottle misting | Source: iStock

You likely won’t find specific studies on contamination as it relates to yoga or other exercise mats, but there is some research about wrestling mats. One 2014 study reported more than half of all the mats sampled at seven different wrestling gyms tested positive for dermatophytes, a type of fungi that can cause ringworm. Aside from being uncomfortable, such fungal infections are also problematic for competitive athletes because a diagnosis often means sitting out until the problem clears up.

Probably the best way to reduce your exposure to harmful bacteria, viruses, and fungi, is to use your own equipment instead of the communal yoga or stretching mats at your facility. This way you know exactly who and what has come in contact with the surface. You also need to make cleaning your mat as regular as cooling down after your workout.

As for the actual cleaning, there are plenty of products on the market. You don’t have to invest in pricey sanitizer, though. Rodale’s Organic Life recommended a solid wipe-down with a vinegar solution. They also said it’s a good idea to do a thorough cleaning every week. Yes, every week. The method is really easy. Just drizzle a bit of liquid soap over the surface, sprinkle on some salt, give it a gentle scrub, then rinse clean. And don’t forget to let it dry thoroughly before rolling it back up or stashing it in your closet.

Follow Christine on Twitter @christineskopec

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