Get a workout, not MRSA, at the gym

U. FLORIDA (US) — Concerns that dumbbells and treadmills at community gyms are a breeding ground for an antibiotic-resistant infection may be unfounded.

A study of fitness equipment and floor mats at three different locations found no trace of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), supporting the theory that it may be passed from skin to skin and not surface to skin, says Kathleen Ryan, clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Florida.

The assumption was that substantial MRSA would be found on equipment, and abrasions on skin could then lead to infection.

“We have an increasing incidence of MRSA in the community, and we are looking for the sources of infection,” Ryan says. “This is very surprising.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 30 percent of people carry Staph bacteria on their bodies; however, only 2 percent have MRSA, which is resistant to a variety of common antibiotics.

The community-acquired form of MRSA accounts for about 14 percent of cases. Children and athletes are more likely than most people to become infected.

Details of the research are published in the American Journal of Infection Control.

For the study, 240 samples collected from equipment housed in three area gyms, including a university gym, a community fitness center, and a high school gym were swabbed at different intervals, taking samples from places more likely to be touched, such as handles. They specifically looked at cardio machines, barbells, benches, and weight machines.

“All the gyms have a high user rate,” Ryan says. “If (MRSA) had been there we believe we would have found it.

“People have almost gotten to the point where they don’t want to touch anything anymore. I think we can relax a little. I don’t think we need to feel like everything we touch is some bad thing that is going to give us disease.”

Researchers strategically selected three gyms to test in order to represent a cross section of the community and to collect samples from equipment in centers with different policies and procedures.

The high school, for example, did not provide sanitizing wipes to students who used the equipment as the university and community center did.

“Bacteria can grow on a lot of surfaces but they need a substrate to grow on, like oils and other proteins and skin. It may be that solid surfaces just don’t have enough stuff on them,” Ryan says. “A couple of studies found MRSA in wetter areas around sinks and on towels.”

While the study provides reassurance that some surfaces and areas may not harbor the high levels of contamination that people imagine, more sensitive testing measures may reveal lower levels of MRSA contamination on gym surfaces, cautions Aaron Milstone, assistant professor of pediatric infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins University, who was not involved in the study.

“It is another provocative piece of the puzzle in the role the environment plays in the transmission of Staph aureus between people.”

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