The death of Dave Goldberg, the chief executive of SurveyMonkey, in May at a resort gym in Mexico raised some unsettling questions for travelers who like to work out when they’re on the road: How safe are hotel fitness facilities and their equipment? (Initial news reports suggested that Mr. Goldberg died in a treadmill accident, though later accounts said a heart ailment could have played a role.) And how risky is it to exercise when few people may be around?
Experts say the likelihood of dying, being badly injured or contracting a serious disease as a result of a visit to a hotel gym is rare, but the potential is real. The risks include equipment-related injuries, heart attacks and a constellation of contagions, for which gyms are an ideal breeding ground.
Kurt Broadhag, a Los Angeles-based consultant on fitness center design and liability issues for hotels and other clients, said that guests who use hotel facilities can be at a greater risk than they would be at their health clubs back home. For one thing, the workout equipment may be unfamiliar or poorly maintained. For another, hotel gyms are frequently unstaffed, so there’s nobody available to explain the equipment or come to the rescue if something goes wrong.
“Some of the bigger facilities will have attendants,” he said. But unless they have other sources of revenue like outside members or a spa tax, he added, “gyms are usually a losing proposition.”
Dr. Richard L. Page, who heads the department of medicine at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, has studied survival rates from sudden cardiac arrest in traditional fitness centers, such as health clubs, and alternative exercise sites, including hotel gyms.
Using data collected in the Seattle area from 1996 to 2008, he and co-authors at the University of Washington found that people who suffered cardiac arrest at the traditional facilities had a survival rate of 56 percent, compared with 45 percent at the alternative ones. Exercisers whose cardiac arrests occurred in places like restaurants or shopping centers fared worse still, with a survival rate of 34 percent.
Though Dr. Page said he considered the data insufficient to explain the trend in survival rates, or even to say with certainty that hotel gyms are inherently more dangerous, he offered several theories. The traditional facilities may be more likely to have people on hand who can administer CPR, as well as readily available automated external defibrillators, he said. Because seconds count in cardiac arrest cases, the sooner the intervention, the better the likely outcome.
It’s also possible, he said, that people who regularly go to a health club are simply more fit than those who occasionally take advantage of a hotel gym and are therefore more likely to survive.
Philip M. Tierno Jr., a professor of microbiology and pathology at the New York University School of Medicine and author of “The Secret Life of Germs,” suggests another possible factor: People often drop their guard at resorts and other vacation spots, skipping some of the safety measures they might normally follow at home.
Dr. Tierno can reel off enough potential perils to make you want to stay locked in your hotel room rather than venturing to the gym: community-acquired MRSA (an antibiotic-resistant staph infection), foot fungus, hepatitis A and norovirus, to name just a few. But still, he said he uses hotel gyms himself when he travels.
So do both Mr. Broadhag and Dr. Page, despite their knowledge of the risks. Of course, all three take some precautions. Here are some of the things they do and recommend to other travelers:
Scope it out. “When I walk into hotel gyms, I’m just shocked sometimes at the condition they’re in,” Mr. Broadhag said. The first thing he checks is how clean the facility is. Litter on the floors, dirty mirrors, foul smells and a lack of fresh towels are all bad signs, he said, and not just for aesthetic reasons. “When hotels don’t keep the facility clean, that probably means they don’t have a good maintenance program for their machines,” he said. Mr. Broadhag also examines the machines themselves, looking for any rust, frayed cables, damaged pulleys or other signs of potential hazard.
Judging by Consumer Product Safety Commission data, treadmills may be worth an especially close look. Although the agency doesn’t track hotel gym injuries separately, according to its latest report on exercise equipment, treadmills accounted for more than 24,000 injuries severe enough to require an emergency room visit in 2014, more than any other type of exercise machine. The commission’s most recent data on fatalities, covering the years 2003 to 2012, show an average of three treadmill-related deaths a year. Dumbbells and weights, which may be less common in hotel gyms, account for even more injuries overall, according to the commission.
Dress the part. Dr. Tierno might be easy to recognize in a hotel gym; he’s likely to be the guy in the long-sleeve sweatshirt, sweatpants and foot covers. The more of your body you keep covered, he said, the smaller the chance that anything can get on your skin. If you’re exercising on a mat, he suggests putting a towel over the surface so you never touch the mat. He also puts an X on his towel’s mat-facing side so he won’t come into contact with it later by accident.
When you’re ready to hit the shower, Dr. Tierno said, slip on a pair of flip-flops to avoid contact with the floor. And when you get out of the shower, don’t sit naked on a locker room bench to get dressed; if you do, he says, you’ll risk contaminating yourself all over again.
Clean the machine. Mr. Broadhag said he makes frequent use of the disinfectant wipes many gyms provide for cleaning their machines before and after a workout. Dr. Tierno takes it a step further: He brings his own. His favorites are alcohol wipes or those that combine alcohol and other disinfecting ingredients. The advantage of alcohol, he says, is that it works in a matter of seconds, lessening the risk that you’ll touch anything before the worrisome organisms have been fully eliminated.
Watch your hands. Even if you’re properly dressed, Dr. Tierno said, your hands will remain exposed and may pick up germs. “It’s very important that you don’t put your fingers in your mouth and don’t touch your nose or eyes,” he said.
Wash them, too. Dr. Tierno’s hand-washing routine is a mini-workout in itself. First he washes with soap and water, thoroughly cleaning between his fingers and getting under the nails. Then he does it again. Both times he follows the advice to scrub long enough to complete two renditions of “Happy Birthday to You.” Having washed twice, he then applies a large dollop of a glycerin-and-alcohol sanitizer to his hands, rubs them together vigorously and allows them to air dry, rather than use a possibly germy towel.
Above all, the experts say, don’t let the potential risks — or the added hassle of taking some precautionary measures — keep you out of the gym. “What’s more important than anything is getting some exercise,” Dr. Page said. “It’s so fundamentally good for you, and the likelihood of something bad happening is extremely small.”
An earlier version of this article carried a correction that was posted in error. As the initial article correctly noted, Dave Goldberg, the chief executive of SurveyMonkey, died while at a resort gym; the private villa he was staying at is part of a resort, not separate from it.