Microbiologist Philip Tierno expected to find germs when he visited a dozen New York City gyms two years ago. Exercisers were sweating profusely, and nude health club members were sitting on locker room benches. When he swabbed the shower floors and tested the samples, he discovered hoards of E. coli, the bacteria commonly found in human feces.

“Where man is, so are his germs. People have no idea what they're spreading,” says Tierno, the director of clinical microbiology and immunology at New York University Medical Center and author of “The Secret Life of Germs.”

Eighty percent of all infections are transmitted via direct or indirect contact, he says. To prevent the spread of disease, some fitness facilities are investing in antimicrobial flooring, which suppresses the growth of bacteria, fungus, mold, mildew and other environmental germs.

Some types of flooring such as vinyl, stained concrete and rubber are inherently antimicrobial because their solid, non-porous surfaces make it more difficult for bacteria to grow. Unlike carpet, they can also be more easily sanitized. For added protection, some flooring manufacturers are adding antimicrobial agents to synthetic flooring during the manufacturing process or glazing the materials to inhibit the growth of bacteria.

“Today's flooring products are better in terms of cleanliness and hygiene,” says Rudy Fabiano, the design director and president of Fabiano Designs in Montclair, NJ. “The increased use of solid and sealed flooring products have gone a long way to eliminating the problem of bacteria in a facility.”

Flooring Selection

Several flooring manufacturers have noticed an increase in requests for antimicrobial flooring from fitness facility owners during the past few years.

“Basically, 100 percent of our products have been antimicrobial, but people have only started to really ask about it within the last five years,” says a spokesperson for one flooring manufacturer, who attributes the increase to a change in the perception of this type of flooring.

Another flooring manufacturer's spokesperson says that the increased requests are coming as club owners become more aware that methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, better known as MRSA, has migrated from health care facilities to sports and recreation facilities. (For more on MRSA, go to: www.fitnessbusinesspro.com/mag/fitness_clean.)

Five percent to 10 percent of Christell Leonard's clients request that antimicrobial flooring be installed in their health clubs, says the senior interior designer for Ohlson Lavoie Collaborative in Denver. Leonard specified antimicrobial carpet for the cardio area of the 78,000-square-foot Trails Recreation Center in Centennial, CO, because of the high amount of sweating near the cardio machines. She installed resilient wood, poured rubber, colored concrete, porcelain tile and resilient track flooring in other parts of the facility.

“I try to have the antimicrobial feature in carpet if it's going to be in an area where a lot of moisture may soak into the floor,” she says.

David Phillips, interior designer for Fabiano Designs, says he specifies antimicrobial carpet for all areas of a fitness facility needing carpet because germs have no boundaries.

Although some club owners might think they only need antimicrobial carpeting in high-moisture areas such as cardio rooms and locker rooms, one flooring vendor representative says that fitness facility owners also are installing the flooring in childcare centers, lobbies and cafés.

“Club owners realize the potential for bacterial infections is not limited to locker rooms but can exist just about anywhere their members work out, use equipment or change,” says the manufacturer's spokesperson.

Despite the increase in requests for antimicrobial flooring, some club owners are still unaware of this option and some don't choose their flooring solely for that feature, says Leonard.

Dave Bundy, owner of Global Fitness, considered color, durability and functionality when selecting the flooring for his clubs in Stow, MA, and Tyngsboro, MA. The antimicrobial element of the flooring was just an added benefit.

“The maintenance is great, and the floors last a really long time,” he says. “We honestly did not know about the antimicrobial benefits, so we find it as a really nice additional feature.”

Bundy purchased 1,500 square feet of vinyl flooring for the group exercise studio at his Stow, MA, club because it was recommended for group fitness, Bundy says. At his Tyngsboro, MA, club, he invested in antimicrobial carpet for the cardio area, strength-training area and locker rooms. He paid $6 a square foot for the antimicrobial carpet, which is vacuumed every night and shampooed every three months.

“We do our best to keep the club clean, but I think that we have become germaphobes and worry way too much about things,” Bundy says. “Our clubs are cleaner than most, but we can only do so much.”

Pay the Price

Although nothing can completely eliminate all germs in a fitness facility, some club owners are willing to pay the extra cost for the added precaution of antimicrobial flooring. Most commercial carpet manufacturers charge an average of 25 cents to 60 cents extra per square yard for the chemical treatment. The antimicrobial agents aren't simply sprayed on the carpet. Instead, they're infused into the fibers of the carpet so that the agents won't wear off during regular maintenance.

“To shortchange yourself and order carpet without the antimicrobial finish during the installation phase is not the way to go,” Phillips says. “It could potentially lead to future problems for the club. Changing floor surfaces regularly in any health club is expensive and inconvenient.”

Some health club owners may think it's sufficient to buy regular commercial-grade carpet and shampoo it regularly, but this is only a temporary solution, Phillips says. Mold can grow underneath flooring, which can cause health problems, he says.

To combat the problem of bacteria growing underneath the carpet, health clubs are gluing down carpets with antimicrobial adhesives. This is especially important for clubs in high-humidity climates or those that have a lot of moisture seeping through the concrete slab below the carpet.

Tierno, however, doesn't recommend carpeted surfaces for a health club and wishes carpet could be eliminated altogether in fitness facilities.

“Carpet is a breeding ground for germs, whether or not it has antibacterial treatment,” he says. “Hard surfaces are sanitizable.”

Completely abandoning carpet as a flooring material in a health club, however, is not realistic, Phillips says.

“You can choose to have that hard surface environment where everything can be washed down, or you can still maintain the comfort through the likes of carpet with an antimicrobial finish to be able to deal with the bacteria and the mold,” he says.

Clean Up

Although not everyone agrees about whether or not carpeting should be used in a health club, many flooring experts concur that antimicrobial flooring doesn't mean that cleaning and maintenance are no longer required. Antimicrobial doesn't mean sterile.

“This is only an added benefit — not a replacement for good hygiene,” Tierno says. “You still have to clean the floors in order for them to work.”

Cuoco Black, a New York City health club designer, agrees. Antimicrobial floors are only as clean as the club's management keeps them, he says.

“I believe there is a false sense of security in that these antimicrobial properties would require less maintenance, therein giving club owners less reason to keep them clean,” he says.

Club owners who invest in this type of flooring, however, are often more conscientious about the cleanliness of their fitness facilities and are more likely to be aware of the need for regular maintenance, Phillips says. Selecting antimicrobial flooring for a club may not be the end-all solution to the fight against germs, but he says it's a step in the right direction.

“Members stress their bodies at the gym, and when their bodies are at their weak point, you don't want bacteria flooding around a club,” he says. “We're aware of germs, and we know they're out there, and it's up to clubs to protect the members.”

How to Run A Cleaner Club

  • Invest in antimicrobial carpet for cardiovascular areas and locker rooms. When possible, use surfaces that inhibit the growth of bacteria for other parts of the club as well.

  • Have your flooring sealed or treated to protect against the growth of germs.

  • Regularly sanitize solid flooring with a germicide such as household bleach in a diluted solution.

  • Make sure you have adequate ventilation in your club. If your facility has a high amount of humidity, moisture will eventually affect the carpet, whether or not it has an antimicrobial treatment.

Types of Antimicrobial Flooring
Flooring Antimicrobial Benefits Common Uses
Carpeting Carpeting can be chemically treated to reduce the growth of bacteria, fungi, yeast, mildew and mold. In the last few years, manufacturers have also developed carpet with plastic fibers that replace the traditional cloth weave. Although the plastic fibers look like carpet and many weaves are available, it's more difficult for bacteria to grow in these fibers than in cloth-weave carpet. Locker rooms and cardiovascular areas
Rubber flooring Rubber does not allow the growth of bacteria, and the surface can be treated with a glaze shield that completely seals the surface and makes the rubber flooring easier to clean. Weight rooms and cardiovascular areas
Sheet vinyl The seams of vinyl are heat-welded together to make sure the surface is one solid piece. This process prevents moisture from seeping into the cracks to the foam underlayment or subfloor where bacteria may grow. Court sports, spinning and group exercise
Poured floors A base of rubber chips is covered by a poured epoxy resin or rubber top surface that seals out moisture and bacteria. Running tracks and multi-court basketball areas
Wood flooring Wood flooring is often coated with a urethane finish, which not only gives the surface a glossy appearance but also keeps the wood from absorbing moisture. Group exercise and court sports