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Your Gym Bag Is a Festering Pile of Germs

When should you replace all your old workout gear, anyway?

The contents of most gym bags are, clothing sizes aside, pretty interchangeable. Everyone has the standards: Shoes, shorts, socks, headphones, etc. The other thing most gym bags have in common is that their contents rarely, if ever, get updated. Sure, you switch up your T-shirts now and again, but considering your gym bag is a festering nightmare of bacteria, it’s worth knowing how often to replace all of its contents. Here’s what the experts recommend.

Running Shoes

Your shoes can play a huge part in keeping you injury-free when running. But if you don’t replace them, those same shoes will gradually lose their shock-absorption powers, possibly leading to knee, leg and back pain. Runner’s World advises replacing your running shoes every 300 to 500 miles, depending on how your feet and legs feel when you’re running in them. A study in the journal Clinic Sports Medicine also suggests that shoes that provide strong shock absorption right out of the box (e.g., the Asics fuzeX or the Sketchers GORun 4) may wear out more rapidly than other running shoes, so these will probably need replacing more often than a basic pair.

Gym Socks

Holes, obviously, are a sign that it’s time to buy a new pair of gym socks, but you probably shouldn’t wait that long to replace the nasty pair in your bag. The American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine claims that feet tend to gather more sweat during a workout than any other body part: Each foot can produce more than a pint of sweat during athletic activity, but your sock also gathers the sweat that drips down your legs. As the halfway house for all this perspiration, your socks are, in short, revolting.

You’re probably telling yourself right now that you wash your socks after each workout. But therein lies the problem: While some socks made from advanced synthetic fibers can last longer, classic cotton socks lose their shape over time and after multiple washes. This deformation causes the sock to sit weirdly on your foot, which, in turn, can lead to skin irritation such as scratches and blisters during workouts. The advice there then is pretty obvious: If your socks no longer fit properly, it’s time to replace them. REI suggests finding a specialized pair based on your workout activity — running socks, for example, that provide more padding, or hiking socks that do a better job of soaking up the moisture from your feet.

T-Shirts and Shorts

Like socks, your other clothes tend to soak up a lot of sweat and, thereby, bacteria. Shirts and shorts made from more natural fibers like cotton tend to collect less bacteria than humanmade, synthetic fibers, according to a study from the American Society for Microbiology — a major consideration if you’re disinclined to wash your shorts often (holding their shape is less important here than it is with your socks).

A word of warning, though: You might think that shirts designed to block body odors with antimicrobacterial textiles — like Patagonia’s Polygiene Odor Control range — have a longer shelf life, but a study by the University of Alberta says that many of these types of clothes don’t live up to their claims, as the antimicrobials may not have the same level of effectiveness against sweat and proteins after they’re applied to textiles.

Towels

An expert from Good Housekeeping recommends washing standard bath towels after three or four uses, but since gym towels tend to deal with heavier duty activities than patting dry after a shower, you should wash them after every use. Unfortunately, this kills your towel as repeated washing can lessen a towel’s absorption powers, especially if you use fabric softener, which loosens the fibers that give them the ability to suck up sweat, dirt and shower water. When you notice that your towel isn’t getting you dry as fast as it used to (or that it’s starting to retain its dank smell), it’s time to throw it out and buy a new one.

Health Supplements

Vitamins and health supplements aren’t required to have expiration dates on the bottle, so it can be tricky to tell when they’ve gone bad if you don’t remember when you bought them. Fortunately, taking old vitamins won’t kill you, but they do lose their potency over time. According to a study at Purdue University, this is especially likely to happen if they’ve been stored in places with high levels of humidity, like the kitchen or the bathroom. Substances like vitamin C and some forms of vitamin B will dissolve in these conditions, even if they’re kept in their containers.

The protein in protein powders also can decrease over time. According to a Penn State food science professor interviewed by Men’s Health, you can tell if the powder has gone bad by tasting it to see if it’s retained its flavor — i.e., if it tastes like you’ve licked a piece of sandpaper, it’s time to buy a new bottle.

Headphones

The good news is that there are no definitive links between dirty earbuds and ear infections, but to be on the safe side, you should clean them now and again, especially if they’re tangled within your dirty towel and shoes all day. Cleaning them with a small amount of soap and water on a gentle cloth doesn’t just help get rid of germs, it also maintains their maximum sound levels, as it removes the dirt and oils that have built up on them. In this case, regular cleaning will actually help them last longer.

Gym Bags

Your gym bag itself needs to be washed every now and again as well, since its insides are constantly rubbing elbows with your bacteria-covered clothes. A study by the private research group Initial Washroom Services found that many gym bags carried high levels of coliform bacteria, which is also found in human fecal waste. More directly, 30 percent of gym bags tested in another study were found to have actual fecal waste on them. Giving it a wipe down with antibacterial wipes after each workout can reduce its germ population and help it last a little longer. But if the musty smell from the bacteria doesn’t wear off after you’ve cleaned it, it’s time to ditch it.