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The Problem With Gyms + The Solution

There are many reasons why people make the hike to their local gym. For some, it’s about getting motivated to train or work out in a place that’s dedicated to physical fitness. Others like the socialization aspect. Still others feel it’s a way to leave the distractions of home behind and focus strictly on the task at hand, whether it’s weight training, weight loss, strengthening, and more.

But recent studies have revealed concerning high levels of carcinogens in the air of the average fitness center, as well as significant amounts of harmful bacteria on the surfaces of fitness equipment. But compared to skipping exercise altogether, working out in a gym is better than not exercising at all.

The CDC, the EPA, and many medical journals have found that exposure to air pollutants in urban areas is linked to higher rates of asthma and abnormal heart rhythms, and increases  risk of death from cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. Which means that if you have the choice between exercising in your backyard or a nearby park or a forest versus exercising in the gym, you’re better off heading outdoors.

Photo: Shutterstock/Gutesa

Common Gym Problems

Some of the most frequent gym problems include: poor air quality, carbon dioxide (CO2), particulate matter, and mold.

The indoor air quality in some fitness centers may be just as harmful to health as air pollutants in urban areas. A study in the journal Building and Environment found unacceptably high levels of carbon dioxide, particle pollution, and formaldehyde and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in multiple indoor fitness centers.

Expiration, the primary mechanism via which we lose fat, releases CO2, so it stands to reason that CO2 levels significantly rise when there are many people huffing and puffing in a gym room, especially if that room is poorly ventilated. When people are crammed into an indoor space and running on treadmills, riding bikes, rowing, jumping around, and  lifting weights, it’s a given that the air quality in that space will be compromised.

One study found the highest levels of COwere in an interior room used for cycling spin classes; while the CO2 levels in a gym aren’t going to kill you, they’re not completely harmless either. Compounding the problem is the fact that most buildings where gyms are located are designed to recycle used air instead of heating or cooling fresh air from outside.

Particulate matter is a mixture of solid and liquid droplets such as nitrates, sulfates, organic chemicals, metals, and soil or dust. This type of matter can come from rubber mats, metal plates, dumbbells banging together — and even dead pieces of skin from  people working out in the gym. These particles are small enough to pass through your nasal cavities and enter your lungs, especially when you’re breathing hard during exercise.

On the website, you can learn about hidden sources of environmental mold that, all told, deleteriously affect the health of more than 100 million people worldwide. Indoor mold can be even more dangerous than pollutants such as asbestos and lead. Mold is commonly found  in gyms, locker rooms, saunas, and swimming pool areas where moist air fuels bacteria growth. Inhaled mold toxins can be just as harmful as mold on spoiled food. In too many gyms,  mold is often ignored for long periods of time, which poses a health hazard to individuals visiting the gym for the express purpose of improving their health.

Photo: Shutterstock/Diego Cervo

Synthetic Fragrances and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

Gym goers use deodorants. They wear perfumes and colognes. And these odors can’t help but fill the air around you when people are in close proximity to one another and working up a sweat. For some, these odors can be mildly annoying; for others, they can be downright sickening or allergy inducing. But unless you have the courage to ask the person running on the treadmill next to you to leave their favorite fragrance at home, chances are you won’t be able to control this facet of gym life.

Exposure to VOCs in high levels can cause skin irritation, neurotoxicity, and hepatotoxicity (toxicity of the liver). More than eighty percent of the gyms reviewed in one study  exceeded an acceptable level of unsafe VOCs, which include compounds such as formaldehyde, fire retardants, acetone, and other substances that off-gas from carpeting, furniture, cleaners, paint, and more. Levels of VOCs tend to be higher in gyms with newer equipment, and also in recently cleaned spaces owing to the use of cleaning chemicals.

Photo: Shutterstock/GP PIXSTOCK

Benefits Of Exercising Outdoors

Research has shown that experiencing the outdoors – and exercising in it – can have dramatic benefits. Whether you’re hiking in a forest, walking on nature trails, or taking your exercise routine outside, you’ll be exposed to tiny particles and phytochemicals that plants release, which, in turn, help decrease salivary cortisol, depression, and anger.


In addition, stepping outside of the year-round comfort of air conditioning and heaters also offers a wealth of healthful benefits. Exposure to temperature fluctuations such as cold air, snow, rain, sun, heat, and other environmental variables has been shown to increase stress resilience, burn more calories, improve cardiovascular performance, and help you attain fitness goals more quickly.

While exercising outdoors, you’ll also benefit from the positive effects of sunlight, which studies have shown can lower depression, especially that from seasonal affective disorder (SAD). A 2007 study from the University of Essex found that a simple walk in the countryside reduced depression in 71% of participants. The researchers found that nature therapy, known as ecotherapy, and spending as little as five minutes in a natural setting can improve mood, motivation, and self-esteem. Health care professionals are also finding that spending time in a natural environment can benefit children by helping to combat obesity, anxiety, depression, and other health issues.