January is a boom time for the fitness industry, as millions of guilt-ridden Americans flock – at least temporarily – to health clubs to try to shed excess pounds acquired over the holidays.
"People eat too much, drink too much, and everyone wants to come back to the gym," said Jose Velasquez, 40, a restaurant worker who regularly works out at an LA Fitness gym in Washington D.C. and has seen the post-holiday boom-and-bust phenomenon again and again.
But for the inexperienced, the gym can pose unexpected hazards. Many fitness wannabes are not familiar with how to use exercise machines and other equipment and can easily sustain head, eye, back, neck, hip, leg and ankle injuries.
"Right after the holidays, there's a mad rush of people who have never exercised before or haven't exercised in a long time," said Leon E. Popovitz, a veteran orthopedic surgeon at New York Bone and Joint Specialists in Manhattan. "That leads to a lot of injuries that normally could be avoided."
Hundreds of thousands of Americans suffer injuries every year while working out -stumbling on treadmills, falling off exercise balls, getting snapped in the face by resistance bands, dropping weights on their toes and wrenching their backs by lifting too much weight.
Nearly 460,000 people went to hospital emergency rooms in 2012 for injuries related to exercise equipment, according to Consumer Products Safety Commission data analyzed by USA Today in 2015. Most were treated and released, but about 32,000 were hospitalized and a few were pronounced dead on arrival.
Here are five tips from Popovitz and other fitness experts to avoid mishaps on the gym floor:
Use a professional trainer to show you the ropes. The biggest mistake a newcomer can make is springing to action on treadmills, elliptical trainers, leg presses, pulleys and other equipment without basic instructions for avoiding accidents and injuries. Most reputable health clubs offer introductory instruction to new members, then let them decide whether to pay to continue to work out with a trainer or take part in group instruction.
"It wouldn't hurt to have a second pair of eyes to watch you while you're doing a workout you enjoy, to make sure you have the right form to avoid injuries," Popovitz counsels.
Beware of treadmills. While they may seem to be the most basic and benign piece of equipment on the floor, studies and media reports suggest that treadmills cause the most injuries – to young and old – of any type of exercise equipment.
One of the biggest problems with treadmills is that users "zone out" while jogging on the conveyor belt. They often listen to music on their ear buds, watch TV or read a book, but pay no attention to the speed of the belt. Exercisers have been seriously injured by falling off the treadmill after losing their balance or simply reaching for a water bottle.
As crazy as it sounds, some people sustain back injuries by trying to move a treadmill by themselves. Finally, persistent running on a treadmill can cause inflammation of the joints in the hip as well as tendinitis and bursitis. That's because people alter their gait to compensate for the narrow path or fast pace of the treadmill.
Moderate your weightlifting. Many novices mistakenly obsess over maximizing the weight they are lifting and the number of repetitions rather than concentrating on good form and sensible weight loads.
When properly executed, the overhead standing lift is a great exercise for toning the shoulders. That requires distributing weight evenly across the shoulders and spine. However, many inexperienced people add far too much weight to the bar, which causes them to hold the bar slightly in front of their body.
Popovitz warns that doing this can place an inordinate amount of pressure on the spine, especially the lower back. That is a recipe for chronic back problems.
What's more, he said, vigorous curling with excessive weights to build up the arms and pecs can lead to ruptured tendons in the chest that require surgery to repair.
Know your own limitations. While this may be more of a problem for exercise fanatics than health club newbies, experts warn that people who regularly push their bodies to the breaking point can do serious damage to their shoulders and joints and risk life-threatening breakdowns of their muscles.
One little-known danger zone is rhabdomyolysis, a condition in which overactive, highly fatigued muscles break down and release proteins and enzymes into the bloodstream at a dangerous rate. The runaway proteins and enzymes attack the kidneys. If left untreated, the condition can cause kidney failure.
Even more scary, the condition can be triggered by a single, especially taxing workout, such as a beginner persevering through an hour-long, intense spin-cycle class, or an ordinary runner undertaking a marathon under hot, humid conditions.
Clumsiness can do you in. Just running and jumping or lugging heavy objects such as medicine balls or kettlebells around in a crowded gym can result in stumbling and falling. Fitness trainers are notorious for leaving equipment and weights lying around, and even some of them have suffered ankle, leg and arm injuries by stumbling over equipment.