You won't believe these gym gross-outs

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Gym rats: beware of gym rats, as well as gym cockroaches. Also, you’d best avoid that dried vomit coating the stationary bike, the blood swirling in the whirlpool, and that old man in the locker room who is dutifully airing out his genitals with the hand-held hair dryer.

These are merely five of the nearly 2,000 gnarly sights, smells and sounds reported by fitness center patrons in a new Harris Interactive survey commissioned by the Cintas Corporation. Exercise buffs were asked last month, via an online poll, to list “the dirtiest object or behavior” they've ever seen in an athletic facility. They were urged to “please be as descriptive as possible.” Oh, and the people obliged – just in time for the January surge of membership deals from your local gyms.

“Body builder farted as I was inhaling about to bench press,” wrote a 49-year-old man. 

“A woman soiled herself while weight lifting,” added a 76-year-old man.

And we certainly cannot forget the super-parched guy who, for some reason, decided to start “licking the drinking fountain.”

Sweat? You’re repulsed by people who drip and trickle perspiration all over the machines and the mats, and who fail to towel it off? OK, that’s fair. More than 130 survey responders groused about salty droplets sprayed on benches, on mirrors and, well, on them.

But according to the survey, sweat is one of nine bodily emissions glimpsed by folks at the gym. The others: saliva, phlegm, ear wax, vomit, feces (in the shower), menstrual blood (on a shower stall and curtain), sperm, and urine (both on the bathroom floor and next to a piece of weight-lifting equipment). 

To best soak in the full landscape of observed vulgarity, we broke down the 2,000-plus listed complaints into three additional categories: The illegal, the just plain idiotic, and those behaviors you typically see on a school playground or maybe at the zoo.

You can decide into which of those columns these three descriptions should fall:

“A meathead chomping on his gum, wearing sunglasses, staring at himself in the mirror,” wrote a 34-year-old man. (No germ, just jerk.)

“Janitors using same towels people use to wipe their bodies to clean the bathroom floor/toilet,” wrote a 40-year-old woman.

"A man went to go bench press and the weights fell on him causing him to bleed and no one went to clean it up ... about an hour after the ambulance came for the first gentleman ... the blood was still present," wrote a 24-year-old female. 

Disturbingly, several people mentioned seeing other gym members improperly expose their genitals – in the work-out area or in the locker room. We're not talking about folks strolling buck-naked to the shower or basking au naturel in the sauna. 

Mikey Rox, principal at the New York City creative firm Paper Rox Scissors, described in an interview his sleaziest gym vision: "I once witnessed a guy engaging in a self-relaxation exercise in the steam room that resulted in his DNA on the floor. When he was done, he walked right out. Didn't clean it up. Most disgusting thing I've ever seen in my life. Even worse than the girl in my college library who used to eat her boogers while she was studying. Maybe those two should date."

Turns out, wince-worthy moments are all too common in these public-exercise palaces. It seems nearly everybody who’s ever tried to shed a pound at a fitness center has a foul tale to tell.

“At family gyms like the YMCA, guys keep the body noises under control - until they get to the locker room,” said Neil Gussman, communications manager at Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia. “A 300-plus pound guy comes in the locker room from his brief stint on the elliptical, grins, and farts.

“If we can go outside the gym - although this may happen in spin classes - you can identify young, single guys who do their own laundry, or not, because they have a series of salt lines on their black spandex shorts,” Gussman added in an interview. “When you can see three or four separate lines, that is the number of ride days since these shorts saw any water except sweat.”

Some germs, of course, just aren’t funny.

After recent outbreaks at hospitals and nursing homes of the deadly bug called methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, some gym patrons – including folks in New York City – have wondered whether their public bench presses or stair-steppers may harbor that bacteria. Most MRSA infections show up in the skin and “appear as pustules or boils which often are red, swollen, painful, or have pus or other drainage,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But a 2011 study by the National Institutes of Health seemed to debunk that worry. Scientists obtained cultures of five gym surfaces, before and after routine cleaning in three gyms, at three separate times. Of 240 cultures taken, none showed up with MRSA, the NIH reported

Still, you can catch more than a cold or the flu when working out. In August 2009, public health officials in Los Angeles investigated two cases of Legionnaire’s disease (which includes pneumonia symptoms) in people who had visited the same fitness center one month earlier. Investigators reported: “Although the source of the outbreak could not be confirmed, both cases were exposed to the facility’s pool and spa which were both closed due to inadequate chlorination levels shortly following the exposure.”

You’re probably not going to check the pool-chlorination records at your gym before taking a dip, but there are steps you can take to shield your body from illness.

According to Dr. Aaron Glatt, an infectious disease physician at Mercy Medical Center in New York, as well as spokesperson for the Infectious Disease Society of America, here are five key prevention methods to remember while at the gym: wipe down obviously dirty equipment; wipe down even “clean” looking equipment if sweaty or wet; stay away from any blood or bloody secretions; never share razors; and, simply, "maintain good hygiene even when you are tired and or in the midst of a workout." 

All excellent tips. But they won’t protect your eyes from what this 30-year-old female told the Harris surveyors she once spied at the gym: “Older man 60+, in a Speedo, full on scratching his genitals. In the hallway leading to the lap pool. Reaches over with those same hands and gets a drink of water from the water cooler. I wouldn't have touched it with a ten-foot pole if you had paid me.”