Human coronavirus, cold and flu viruses, and common bacteria like Staphylococcus aureus often lurk on surfaces and wait to infect. There is no doubt that gyms can be safe spaces that protect members from dangerous viruses and microbes. Much of the fight comes down to following the good guidance from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The fight will also be waged with commercial cleaners, microfiber, and elbow grease.

The primacy of professional cleaning procedures will be new to gyms. Current recommendations that are considered best practices are in fact inadequate. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) describes itself as “the world’s largest and most influential organization in the promotion of physical activity.” But ACSM’s Health/Fitness Facility Standards and Guidelines is a book that gives scant guidance about cleaning and disinfecting the surfaces most frequently touched in gyms. Gyms need much more from the ACSM.

Gyms have to use the chemicals, tools, and techniques that kill viruses and microbes. They have to be conversant in the relevant technical terminology like ATP levels, kill claims, dwell times, cleaner alkalinity, EPA registration, SDS sheets, and PPE donning and doffing procedures. These days, learning and implementing the best professional cleaning practices is the most important service a gym can give their members and their staff.

The contemporary ‘best gym’ will think and act like a contract cleaner and give members everything they need to train their way. The ‘best equipment’ in the ‘best rooms’ is useless if it’s all covered in viruses. The ‘best staff’ should clean with the skill of pro custodians.

How members become infected

Coronavirus virus enters the body, finds its way into cells, replicates itself, then leaves those cells, spreads to other cells, and replicates itself some more. Eventually, the immune system attacks but after a lot of virus has already been replicated and after the infected person has started expelling the virus through droplets. Here is a strangely beautiful picture of coronavirus leaving a host cell.

Scientists are still learning about how coronavirus enters the body. They think it is spread from person to person. If a person with COVID-19 disease sneezes, coughs, or talks in the direction of others, the expelled droplets could land in their noses, mouths, or eyes. It is also thought to spread through contact with contaminated surfaces.

Frequently coughing and sneezing people should not be in gyms. The occasional sneeze and cough should be into a tissue that is immediately thrown into the trash.

Cloth masks can protect members from the droplets expelled during talking. But cloth masks should not be placed on anyone who is having trouble breathing. I think vigorously exercising members are persons having trouble breathing. They can protect each other by not talking or by talking from a distance of at least one meter if they don’t want to wear a mask when talking.

The droplets expelled by contagious people most often land on surfaces including their own skin. Members touch those surfaces, thereby contaminating their hands, and then they put their fingers in their mouths, or in their noses, or they rub their eyes, or they touch somebody else’s skin. The contagion spreads.

That means that a gym’s surfaces can be a real danger to members.

Promoting handwashing is an important way that gyms can be safe 

gyms can be safe

Members should wash their hands when first entering gyms. Immediate and ongoing handwashing is so important that The Training Station Gym has installed three handwashing sinks on the actual workout floor, in addition to the four handwashing sinks that are in our private bathrooms and shower rooms, and in addition to our hand sanitizing stations.

Handwashing with soap and water is the key. To understand why, consider the structure of a coronavirus. It’s a protein and RNA surrounded by an envelope of fat. Soap and water dissolve the fat. Then the soap dissolves the bonds holding together the proteins and the RNA. The disassembled virus is inactive and unable to infect. There are many creases and cracks in the skin that may be covered by viruses and microbes and it takes twenty-plus seconds of rubbing and soaking to get the soap into all of those places.

If members do their job—staying away when frequently coughing and sneezing, speaking from a distance if at all, and washing their hands—and if we do our job—ridding surfaces of viruses and microbes—then gyms can be safe.

Our job includes three basic tasks. First, identify the high-touch areas. Second, clean them with a fat-busting detergent. Third, disinfect them.

Identify the high-touch surfaces

A group of researchers in Ohio went to 16 gyms to collect 288 samples that were taken to their lab for processing. They measured the number of bacteria in the samples. Their interest was bacteria, not viruses. The research is still helpful because the number of bacteria is proportional to the amount of touching. Their data suggests that the following are the high-touch areas in a traditional gym, in descending order starting with the most frequently touched objects:

  • Women’s bathroom doors
  • Treadmill handles
  • The curl attachment on a cable-pulley machine
  • The rope attachment on a cable-pulley machine
  • Barbells on Olympic benches
  • The front door
  • Mats
  • Metal pins on selectorized machines
  • Jump ropes
  • Water fountain
  • Weight plates
  • Medicine balls
  • Men’s bathroom door lever
  • EZ curl bar
  • Free weights

I would add to that list, in no particular order: tubes, bands, physio balls, spring clips, sleds, all barbells, monkey bars, rings, TRX straps, foam rollers and balls, yoga blocks, Bosu balls, every handle and lever and pad on every strength machine, spray bottles, the entirety of all bathrooms and shower rooms and changing rooms, rails, and some walls.

Gyms can be safe if those surfaces are cleaned and disinfected every day.

Clean the high-touch surfaces

gyms can be safe

Advanced contract cleaners use the term ‘clean’ in a quantitative way. Their definitions vary. Our gym has adopted this definition: when 30 or fewer microbes are present, when measured using an ATP meter, a surface is clean. Up to 30 is considered ‘food safe.’ We really want 0 microbes present after cleaning and disinfecting but will accept the ‘food safe’ level as a minimum standard.

The objective of cleaning is to dissolve the fat membrane around viruses. Our gym cleans with a leading de-greaser used by commercial kitchens. A cleaner that’s strong enough to remove grease from the hoods over cheesesteak grills is more than strong enough to dissolve the membrane around a virus.

Disinfect the high-touch surfaces

gyms can be safe

After cleaning the critical surfaces, disinfect them. Disinfectants, like soaps, make viruses inactive by destroying the bonds that hold together their RNA and proteins. It’s simple to wash hands with soap and then rinse with water. It’s very cumbersome to do the same to machines and equipment resting on installed flooring with no floor drains. Contract cleaners use disinfectants to solve that problem. After spraying disinfectant on a surface and waiting a specified time, the work is done, there is no need to rinse. The only requirement is that the surface remains wet with disinfectant for a certain amount of time.

Gyms can be safe if they avoid these three things

First, don’t disinfect without cleaning. Disinfectants have ‘kill claims’ that assume that they will be applied to surfaces already cleaned. Let’s say the product claims to kill 99.9% of a particular virus. If the surface wasn’t pre-cleaned then the product will not kill the stated amount of virus.

Second, don’t use disinfectants that are not on the Environmental Protection Agency’s list of disinfectants for use against SARS-CoV-2.

Third, don’t use household disinfecting wipes unless you follow the directions to the letter. To use those properly, the gym would have to first clean a surface with wipes, let the surface air dry, then use additional wipes to make the surface wet for at least four minutes. If your gym uses household wipes but does not take all of those steps, then microbes and viruses will survive. Contract cleaners avoid products without Safety Data Sheets (SDS). Those sheets contain the most reliable information about the contents and safe handling of the product. Commercial products come with SDS sheets whereas household products typically do not. Sticking with commercial products is another way that gyms can be safe.