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.”
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.