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 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 don't know how to use exercise 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. "That leads to a lot of injuries that normally could be avoided."
Hundreds of thousands of Americans sustain 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, say 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 dead on arrival.
Here are five tips from Popovitz and other fitness experts to avoid mishaps on the gym floor:
- Have a professional trainer 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 knowing how to avoid accidents and injuries. Most reputable health clubs offer introductory instruction to new members, then let them decide whether to pay to continue with a trainer or 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 says.
- Beware of treadmills. While they seem to be basic and benign, they cause the most injuries of any exercise equipment, studies and media reports suggest.
Users "zone out" while jogging on the conveyor belt. They often listen to music with ear buds, watch TV or read, but they pay no attention to the speed of the belt. Exercisers have been severely 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. And persistent running on a treadmill can cause hip joint inflammation, tendinitis and bursitis as people alter their gait to compensate for the treadmill's narrow path or fast pace.
- Moderate your weightlifting. Many novices mistakenly obsess over maximizing the weight lifted and number of repetitions rather than concentrating on good form and sensible weight loads.
When properly executed, the overhead standing lift is great for toning the shoulders. That requires distributing weight evenly across the shoulders and spine. But many inexperienced people add far too much weight to the bar, causing them to hold it slightly in front of their body. That can place inordinate pressure on the spine, Popovitz warns.
What's more, he said, vigorous curling with excessive weights can rupture tendons in the chest that require surgery to repair.
- Know your limitations. People who regularly push their bodies to the breaking point can severely damage their shoulders and joints and risk life-threatening breakdowns of their muscles.
One little-known condition is rhabdomyolysis, 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 one especially taxing workout, such as a beginner persevering through an hourlong, intense spin class or an ordinary runner undertaking a marathon in hot, humid weather.
- Clumsiness can do you in. Running, jumping or lugging heavy objects 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 injured ankles, legs and arms by stumbling over equipment.
Finally, watch out for slippery areas, such as floor tile around swimming pools and in locker rooms. Health clubs and gyms are obstacle courses, and the more vigilant you are, the less likely you will become another post-holiday injury statistic.