By Wayne L. Westcott
My experiences as a participant and presenter at the annual American College of Sports Medicine World Congress on Exercise is Medicine meetings have enhanced my understanding of the fitness, health and medical benefits associated with both resistance exercise and aerobic activity. In addition to well-known adaptations in our muscular and cardiovascular systems, appropriate exercise reduces the risk of sarcopenia, osteopenia, metabolic rate reduction, obesity, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, low-back pain, arthritis, falls, cognitive decline, depression, many types of cancer, and all-cause mortality (Bushman 2019, Pronk et al. 2019, Westcott 2012). I have always had the highest respect for medical professionals (doctors, nurses, therapists, etc.), but I have also considered properly designed exercise programs to be an important factor in preventive medicine. However, there is one area in which both medical professionals and fitness professionals can be more effective in reducing the risk of infectious diseases.
Touch Surface Bacteria
A pervasive problem in both healthcare facilities and fitness facilities is the plethora of bacteria that are present on touch surfaces (Michels and Michels 2016). While cleaning agents may offer a degree of temporary germ protection, copper alloys provide a high level of permanent germ reduction due to their antimicrobial properties (Ibrahim et al. 2017). Whereas disinfectants have a relatively short-term effect on common bacteria (approximately 20 minutes), copper alloys have been shown to destroy approximately 99 percent of MRSA bacteria over a 2-hour period, even with continuing applications of this resistant strain of bacteria over a 24-hour period (Michels and Michels 2016).
In a large-scale study involving three major U.S. hospitals, copper components reduced the bacteria count by almost 85 percent compared to non-copper components on typical room touch surfaces, such as bed rails, call buttons, chair arms, tray tables and IV poles (Salgado et al. 2013). This same study found that patients in the rooms with these copper touch surface had an almost 60 percent lower rate of hospital-acquired infections than patients in rooms with standard (non-copper) touch surfaces. These are important findings, as on any given day, 1 in 25 United States hospital patients has at least one hospital-acquired infection, resulting in 75,000 deaths every year (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2019).
Research has also revealed a diversity of potentially pathogenic bacteria on a variety of touch surfaces in fitness centers, which poses risk of community-acquired infections for susceptible exercisers (Mukherjee et al. 2014). In a recent fitness center study (Ibrahim et al. 2017), standard resistance exercise equipment grip surfaces (e.g., dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells, lat pulldown attachments, and low row attachments) were made of either copper alloy or non-copper material (stainless steel or rubber coating). Over the 16-month study period, the copper alloy grip surfaces averaged almost 95 percent lower bacteria levels than the stainless steel and rubber coated grip surfaces, even though the exercisers continued to implement all of the standard antibacterial cleaning procedures (gels, wipes, and sprays). The researchers concluded that the use of copper alloy grip surfaces significantly reduces the bacterial burden on standard exercise equipment and may, therefore, mitigate the spread of community-acquired infections. The prevention of infectious diseases is particularly important due to the resistance of many bacterial strains (super bugs) to currently available antibiotics.
Fitness Center Equipment
As a comparison between standard exercise equipment and common items, the bacteria levels on exercise bike handles are 39 times higher than bacteria levels found on reusable cafeteria trays, and the bacteria levels on free-weight handles are 362 times higher than the bacteria levels found on toilet seats (Fitrated.com). Approximately 70 percent of the bacteria that live on exercise equipment may be potentially harmful to humans, which renders fitness facility germ-fighting procedures an important consideration.
Presently, best practices for facility and equipment cleanliness include the use of antibacterial soaps and disinfectant cleaning agents (spays and wipes). The most effective chemicals for destroying dangerous germs, such as MRSA, are ammonia-based quaternary compounds. However, these are impractical in most fitness facilities, as the wet chemicals must remain on the equipment for 5 to 10 minutes after spraying, and few members are likely to be this patient, especially during heavy-use times (Berg 2019).
An alternative approach and a more permanent solution to the problem of touch surface bacteria, is the incorporation of copper surfaces on exercise equipment. Antimicrobial copper is the only solid touch surface registered with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to make public health claims. Consider that copper surfaces provide a non-chemical intervention that kills bacteria 24/7, does not wear out, does not adversely affect exercise equipment, is not harmful to humans, and destroys 99 percent of common bacteria and viruses (including MRSA and flu strains) on a continuing basis (Michels and MIchels 2016). The concept timeline from initial laboratory testing on the antimicrobial effects of copper alloys until the actual installation of copper touch surfaces in hospitals was almost 13 years. Based on the knowledge and experience gained over this time span, it would be prudent for fitness facilities to begin implementation of copper touch surfaces in the near future. While this could include a variety of contact surfaces such as water fountains, showers, sinks/faucets, and locker handles, the most important touch surfaces for exercisers would logically be the grip areas on dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells, cable attachments, resistance equipment, and cardio equipment.
Presently, there is one exercise equipment company that offers EPA approved and patented antimicrobial copper touch surfaces on (otherwise) all steel dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells, and cable attachments. This company is Black Iron Strength (blackironstrength.com). Owner Tom Grace is a pioneer in developing precision and durable free-weights that have antimicrobial copper hand grips. If you are interested in providing your fitness program participants with exercise equipment and training facilities that have a reduced risk of infectious disease transmission, I suggest the following “best practices” for enhanced hygiene/sanitation:
- EPA approved antimicrobial copper touchpoints on exercise equipment
- Antibacterial soap in restrooms
- Hand sanitizers throughout facility
- Disinfectant wipes, cleansers, or sprays at resistance machines, cardio machines, free-weight equipment, stretching devices, and mat areas
Exercise centers that place a high priority on all aspects of health and fitness (including germ control) will undoubtedly be viewed more positively by both present and potential members. Utilizing EPA approved antimicrobial copper touch surfaces wherever feasible is definitely an important factor in keeping exercisers healthy while they get fit.
Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D., CSCS, directs the Exercise Science and Fitness Research Programs at Quincy College, in Quincy, Massachusetts. He has authored 30 books on strength training and physical fitness.
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