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Are Gyms Hotbeds of MRSA Infections? Maybe Not

Gym surfaces were thought to be likely hosts for the superbug MRSA, but a new study shows that this risk may be exaggerated.

March 4, 2011 -- Gym surfaces were thought to be likely hosts for the superbug MRSA, but a new study shows that this risk may be exaggerated.

In addition, the study shows the risk of MSSA (methicillin-sensitive Staphylococcus aureus) infections from gym surfaces may also be exaggerated.

The findings appear in the March issue of the American Journal of Infection Control.

MRSA is formally known as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. Antibiotic-resistant staph infections like MRSA infections largely occur in hospitals and health care settings, but rates of these infections have been climbing, which has led to concern that community gyms could be hotbeds.

MRSA can live on dry surfaces for long periods. As a result, many gyms have initiated extensive clean-up programs and offer antiseptic wipes to members to clean off equipment before and after use.

Looking for MRSA in Gyms

Researchers tested 240 samples taken from gym mats, dumbbells, and cardio and weight machines at three community-based gyms before and after cleaning at three times during the day. None of these samples tested positive for MRSA or MSSA.

Study researcher Kathleen Ryan, MD, a pediatrician at University of Florida College of Medicine in Gainesville, says she was surprised that they found no evidence of MRSA/MSSA at these gyms.

The study is by no means the final word, she says. “We still need to be cautious, but we don’t need to be paranoid that everything we touch is going to potentially infect us.”

“Wiping down mats and pieces of equipment and keeping your hands clean is enough,” she says. MRSA is more likely to spread from skin-to-skin, as opposed to skin-to-surface contact.

“Don’t slack off, but we can feel comfortable that when we go to gym, we can work out and not have to be worried about MRSA/MSSA infection,” she says.

Don’t Share Equipment

Philip M. Tierno Jr., PhD, director of clinical microbiology and immunology at the New York University Langone Medical Center and a clinical professor of microbiology and pathology at the New York University School of Medicine in New York City, has also tested gym surfaces for MRSA.

“The only place where there was MRSA was on a medicine ball,” he says. Other bacteria were found, including the more mild Staphylococcus epidermidis, he says.

“It is not unusual to go to three locations and not find any MRSA. But had they cultured 10 gyms they may have found MRSA/MSSA,” he says.

Tierno says he is curious what type of bacteria, if any, they did find. Ryan tells WebMD that her team only looked for MRSA/MSSA and does not have data on what other bacteria may lurk on the surfaces at local gyms.

MRSA/MSSA is most often transmitted when people share equipment, helmets, uniforms, towels, and shoes, Tierno says.

If you want to avoid MRSA/MSSA, “don’t share things,” he says.

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