The New Bacteria Appearing In Gyms (& Being Passed Through Sexual Activity)

Illustration: Paola Delucca
It can be a struggle to summon the energy to go to the gym or a yoga class during winter, when all you feel like doing is fusing with your sofa. Now there’s a new excuse to help justify skipping your workout: It might threaten your health. New research by Fit Rated says that gym equipment and yoga mats are riddled with germs and bacteria.
The study found that your average free weights can harbour 362 times more germs than a toilet seat, while a treadmill is likely to host 74 times more than public bathroom taps.
Worryingly, 70% of bacteria found was potentially harmful, including some that commonly cause pneumonia and septicaemia; in some cases, it was antibiotic-resistant.
It’s not only the equipment; there are also risks from using the gym’s towels and even from just being in such close proximity to so many people in a gym’s warm, moist environment.
One skin virus that’s easily passed on is called molluscum contagiosum, and the number of reported cases is on the rise.
It might sound like a friendly Harry Potter spell but molluscum contagiosum is actually a rash of pimples, which can be flesh-coloured or red, and it’s the only member of the pox family to still infect humans.
A person with the condition can have tens, or even hundreds, of the growths on different parts of the body, but they’re primarily found in the armpits and around the genitals.
Dr. Adam Friedmann is consultant dermatologist at the Harley Street Dermatology Clinic. He says: “It spreads by skin-to-skin contact usually, either sexually or non-sexually, although sharing towels can also cause it to spread. So it can easily spread in gyms via contaminated laundry.”
One 28-year-old woman from west London who asked to remain nameless said: “It started with just one little raised flesh-coloured bump at the top of my thigh, which I just thought was a spot and ignored. When it didn't clear up I worried it was a genital wart, then after a couple of weeks a couple more bumps came around my vagina, and soon I had several clumps of about five each. I obviously thought I had an STI and freaked, accusing my long-term boyfriend of all sorts. I went to the STI clinic and they could tell just by looking that it was actually molluscum contagiosum.
“It’s three months on now and I feel embarrassed and dirty even though I know it’s nothing I’ve done, and it really affects my self esteem.”
So what’s the answer – always taking your own towel and using Glastonbury-levels of antibacterial wipes on anything you touch? While doing that might well help protect you against many bacteria, it won’t defend you against molluscum contagiosum as the condition is not preventable. If you rub skin with someone who has it, you may well contract it. And the worst bit – there’s no effective treatment.
Dr. Friedmann explains: “Although there is no cure, eventually immunity prevails and the condition is self-limiting.” Basically meaning you have to wait it out, but that can be anything from four to nine months.
Just to make sure that sunk in: If you are unlucky enough to contract molluscum contagiosum, you might have clumps of wart-like growths around your personal bits for over half a year.
A staff nurse at an NHS STI clinic in south London says they regularly see people with molluscum contagiosum who have googled their symptoms and are convinced they’ll have herpes or genital warts for the rest of their life. So perhaps knowing that the condition does clear up eventually – and that it’s only an aesthetic problem – is some comfort.
There’s no getting away from the fact that living shoulder to shoulder with so many people in cities leaves us vulnerable to viral illness, and humid gym changing rooms are quite literally hot beds for bacteria to grow and spread. It’s not possible to take measures to protect yourself against everything, but if you can, take your own towel and try to avoid rubbing up against lots of strangers. Otherwise you might leave the gym with more than you bargained for.

More from Body

R29 Original Series