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Exercise Equipment That Can Be Dangerous

You take a (very well worth it) risk any time you step in to a gym—here's how to minimize that risk.
Exercise Equipment That Can Be Dangerous

You were probably as shocked as we were when Dave Goldberg, the CEO of SurveyMonkey and husband of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, died after falling and hitting his head on a treadmill during a family vacation in Mexico. And we were even more shocked to find that treadmill-related deaths aren’t altogether that uncommon. According to data from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, 30 cases of treadmill-associated deaths in the U.S. have been reported in the ten years between 2003 and 2012, averaging out to about three deaths per year. 

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OK, so that’s not crazy common, but fortunately, most people who are injured on treadmills live to see another workout. After all, 24,400 U.S. treadmill injuries occurred in 2014 alone, per the Commission. And among mechanical home gym equipment, treadmills account for two thirds of injuries, according to research from the Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center. The researchers decided to investigate equipment injuries after a sneeze threw one of the authors off of her treadmill. She broke three bones in her foot.

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All sneezes aside, however, most treadmill falls come down to improper use, says Michael Silverman, P.T, M.S.P.T., a physical therapist at the Hospital for Special Surgery James M. Benson Sports Rehabilitation Center. “You walk into the gym and see guys messing with their phones while running on the treadmill,” he says. “They are distracted and can easily wind up at the back of the treadmill without realizing it.” 

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Meanwhile, those guys probably aren’t wearing the emergency shut-off clip that’s attached to the treadmill. Hey, it might look dorky, but needing a skin graft is worse. “I've had several patients whose treadmill backed up against the wall who did not wear the key,” says Michael Jonesco, a sports medicine physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “They fell backwards, and while pinned against the wall, the tread continued to spin, peeling off layer after layer of skin. Those have been some of the worse abrasions I've seen to this day.”

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However, simply passing out during a workout can also play into treadmill falls, as may have been the case with Goldberg. “This was likely no freak accident,” says Jonesco. “Based on the available information made public, it's more than likely it was a heart arrhythmia that contributed to his ultimate passing. Heart arrhythmias cause an interruption of the normal heart contractions, causing inadequate blood to be pumped to the rest of the body. When severe, especially in the high-demand setting of exercise, lack of blood flow away from the heart causes loss of oxygen delivery to the brain, causing a syncopal episode, or ‘passing out.’ Obviously as the body collapses, it cannot protect itself, and may sustain further secondary injuries like head trauma.”

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The lesson: Stop playing on your phone while running, run any sprints that may leave you dizzy on solid ground, skip the treadmill if you’re feeling funky, and talk to your doctor if you’re prone to faintness or passing out, Silverman says. Also, make sure you are constantly hydrating during your workout, and always take a few-minute cool down, says Alan Beyer, M.D., medical director of the Hoag Orthopedic Institute. It will help your blood pressure lower gradually rather than all at once, which could lead to passing out. 

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But no, you don’t need to—and shouldn’t—skip them. “Sorry, but treadmill injury risk should not go on the excuse list to skip cardio,” Jonesco says. “Treadmills are excellent means of exercise, and when used properly, very safe. Yes, accidents can occur, but they also can while sitting on your couch. The benefits of regular cardiovascular activity that a treadmill can provide at all hours and seasons heavily outweigh the risks of tragic injury.”

Meanwhile, so do the benefits of these 5 other awesomely effective (but occasionally dangerous) pieces of gym equipment. Use with caution. 

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Dropped barbells and dumbbells are among the most common and cringe-worthy causes of gym injuries, Jonesco says. And weaklings aren’t the only ones dropping the bar. Back in 2009, for instance, Stafon Johnson, a former running back for the University of Southern California, was bench-pressing 275 pounds when the barbell dropped and crushed his throat and larynx, requiring reconstructive surgery. And while probably not quite as painful, dropped dumbbells can easily take out some toes on the way down, he says. 

Minimize your risk:

“Weight lifting accidents can be greatly reduced with some common sense. Don't overreach. Know your limitations. Use the safety clamps on both ends. And if it's time for a day of max-outs, make sure a buddy is there to spot you,” he says. Also, beware of any guys lifting near you. If they drop their barbell, it’s going to bounce, and any rogue bounces could send you to the ER for foot X-rays, he says.

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Box jumps are awesome total body movements that have serious carryover into sports performance. But miss the box, and you’re screwed. Jonesco calls plyo boxes “a common repeat offender,” as he often sees guys injuring themselves on them. The problem: Almost always, fatigued legs that can't quite land that last jump. The result: Stitches, broken bones, and head injuries.

Minimize your risk:

Always start with a low box, even if you know you can jump higher. Work up to greater heights, and remember, this is one of those times when you don’t want to push yourself to failure, Jonesco says. After all, not being able to eek out that last rep doesn’t come without consequences. Stop several reps before your legs cry “uncle.”

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How can swinging a 50-pound weight over your head possibly go wrong? Check out Reddit’s “kettlebell got away from me” and “kettlebell dropped on head” stories to read about everything from dented floors and drywall to dented skulls. After all, if you let go mid-swing—or are just standing too close to another person—you’re not the only one you can hurt, notes Beyer.

Minimize your risk:

This is another piece of equipment you don’t want to use to failure. Stop several reps before you hit that point, says Jonesco. Work up to heavier weights and if your biggest challenge is actually holding onto the kettlebell, you should probably work on your grip strength. Also, stand far away from other exercisers, and keep an eye out for anyone walking into your path, Beyer recommends. 

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These accidents are pretty funny, but largely because they don’t typically lead to hospital stays. After all, when you are hanging from your doorframe, you don’t have too far to fall. Often times, pull-up-bar injuries occur when guys are using too much momentum and the bar actually becomes unhinged from the doorframe. Or, sometimes, guys just forget the bar is there, shut the door on it, and the bar comes crashing down, says Janessa M. Graves, Ph.D., M.P.H, an injury researcher at Washington State University.

Minimize your risk:

This should be pretty self explanatory, but never use momentum to perform pull-ups, and never shut your door on the bar. If that’s too hard for you to remember, you might want to think about investing in a bar that actually drills into your doorframe rather than hanging from it. 

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The number of injuries that occur when people simply trip over their at-home exercise equipment would shock you, says Graves, who was one of the researchers who investigated exercise machine-related injuries. While the study didn’t look at non-mechanical forms of exercise equipment specifically, the researchers did have to weed through a lot of trips over jump ropes and stability balls to identify those at-home exercise injuries that were actually related to machines, she says. 

Minimize your risk:

Put your exercise equipment in the closet. “Make sure your house isn’t so crowded that to put a DVD in your player, you have to stop over your jump rope,” she says. Or, better yet, look where you’re walking.

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