— Going to the gym in January is like going to the mall on Black Friday, to the bar on New Year’s Eve: It’s amateur hour. And, as they say, sometimes what you don’t know can hurt you. Or at least, really, really embarrass you.
Last year, there were more than 1,500 reports of exercisers landing in the emergency room after run-ins with workout equipment, according to data collected by the federal Consumer Products Safety Commission.
The agency estimates that when extrapolated to the rest of us, more than 50,000 people are treated in the ER each year after falling off exercise balls, getting snapped in the face by resistance bands, dropping heavy weights on their toes, tripping over jump ropes or flying off treadmills. Especially flying off treadmills.
In a fit of New Year's resolution frenzy, Taryn Wright marched herself to the gym and onto a treadmill on a January afternoon two years ago. “I had never — literally, never — worked out before, ever, in my life,” says Wright, who’s 31 and lives in Chicago. But, she reasoned, “How hard could it be? All these muscle heads are doing this high on steroids. I can do this!”
At first, she walked. Then, spurred on by the imaginary scorn of her surrounding exercisers, she kicked it up a couple notches — and couldn't keep up. She flew to the end of the treadmill, caught herself at the edge and did a weird little hop back to the front of the machine. “It lifted the end of the treadmill and sent it crashing down to the floor,” says Wright.
She banged her knee and her palm, but most of the damage done was to her pride.
Injuries tracked by the CPSC range from minor and funny to major and serious. Data from 2009 show instances of broken ankles, fractured arms and legs — even amputated fingertips.
So if health club newcomers are a little wary during their first few workouts, they have good reason.
“It can be, when you’re starting out, a huge, scary experience,” says Jody Cranston, a personal trainer in Vancouver, B.C. “You’ve got all this heavy equipment, these huge, heavy weights that almost seem like they’re flying around the room.”
In Cranston's 13 years of being a personal trainer, he’s seen his share of trips and falls — once, he even watched a gym newbie do a complete cartwheel before falling off a treadmill.
The trouble with treadmills
Treadmills cause more injuries than any other type of exercise equipment, according to the CPSC. The agency's latest data for 2009 lists 575 instances of injuries caused by exercisers falling off, tripping on and tripping over treadmills. Even a stationary, powered-off treadmill can pose a danger — the data show dozens of instances of backs injured from attempting to move treadmills and even toes broken after kicking treadmills.
Joy Fruehauf, a mom and yoga instructor who lives in Mill Creek, Wash., has been running on treadmills for 20 years without an incident, until one day, her Walkman (yes, Walkman) fell when she was running at a 9-minute-mile pace. "I remember trying to, like, swoop down and grab my Walkman, and I just lost my footing, and I was down," says Freuhauf, who's 40. She fell face-first into the heart rate monitor bar and immediately passed out.
"When I came to, I was laying on my back, and there were four or five gym members around me," she recalls. She vaguely remembers feeling pressure around her nose and eyes, but what she really remembers feeling is total humiliation. "I was more embarrassed than anything else. I wasn't even thinking about the pain."
At the emergency room, the drugs helped dull the ache of a broken nose, but the embarrassment persisted. As she waited for the doctor to see her, she says, "I could hear the doctors and nurses talking about me!" Did you hear about this girl? She fell on the treadmill!
Gym-goers who exercise while constantly checking their iPhones or iPods (or iPads?) and watching TV and reading the latest US Weekly make trainers nervous.
“You’re not going to stop people from listening to their music, but walking on the treadmill while watching TV and reading at the same time creates a high risk of injury,” says Fabio Comana, an exercise psychologist with the American Council on Exercise in San Diego. Comana urges exercisers to "be cognizant of your surroundings, be cognizant of the people around you.”
Keep your eyes on your own workout
But maybe not too cognizant. Being an exercise copycat doesn't always pay off. During her first month at the gym as a 16-year-old, Lisa Messelt was watching the way other gym members used a menacing-sounding machine called the prone cobra, which works the back. "I saw people hugging the weights, so I thought, OK, I'll grab one of those," says Messelt, who's 19 and lives in Austin, Texas. "After two, I was like, this is way too big. But I was too ashamed to go back and get smaller weights."
She struggled through the workout, went home and collapsed on the couch. After a few hours, she couldn't move. "I threw my back out. At 16 years old," Messelt says.
Experts say more often than not, “it’s carelessness, carelessness,” that causes injuries at the gym, says Neal Pire, a certified personal trainer and president of InsPIRE Training Systems in Ridgewood, N.J. "I think that most of the injuries that happen isn't because of inexperience, but just lack of attention. I've seen so many people who have a lot of experience who just did something dopey."
Speaking of dopey: In 2009, jump ropes — jump ropes! — sent 169 people to the ER for concussions, contusions and sprains. In one case, the jump rope's handle hit a 53-year-old man in the eye.
Apart from injuries caused by that deceptively dangerous childhood favorite, Pire's seen many feet and toes smashed when would-be weight-lifters drop too-heavy dumbbells. Free weights and weight machines cause a considerable amount of exercise injuries — about 224 in 2009, according to the CPSC.
About two years after she’d begun seriously working out, Sunni Patterson was getting bored. So she tried something new: step-ups on a weight bench, holding a 20-pound weight in each hand. Step on the bench. Step off the bench. Step on the bench. Step off the — oops.
“I honestly don’t know what happened, but I fell over. My foot just twisted over!” says Patterson, who's 41 and lives in Barrington, Ill.
“It was very embarrassing,” Patterson says. “The thing I wanted to do most was get off the floor and leave the gym.” So she refused to be taken to the emergency room, and limped around for a week until she finally went to the doctor, who informed her that she’d been hobbling about on a broken ankle for a week.
Slow and steady avoids the ER
Especially when you're just starting out, it's a good idea to begin with a personal trainer who can show you how to use the machines and free weights safely and effectively. But remember to honestly communicate with your personal trainer. Take it slow, especially at first.
"You’re not going to get in shape in an hour. It’s going to take eight, 12, 16 weeks to get in shape," says Walter Thompson, a professor in the department of kinesiology and health at Georgia State University. "If you haven’t been doing this for 10, 20, 40, 50 years, you’re not going to cure that in an hour session."
For Wright, the first-timer who very nearly flew off the treadmill, it was tough to make herself walk back in that gym for another workout, but she did it. "I really cannot believe I went back after that," says Wright, who, since that initial incident, has lost 70 pounds — and has also fallen off the treadmill twice more and once lodged her iPod in the machine. ("They had to take the entire thing apart. They love me there," she says dryly.)
"But if you can't laugh at yourself," she says, "what are you going to do?"