Work Out

What health risks should be avoided at the gym?

You go to the gym to work out -- and that's a good way to maintain or improve your fitness. But you also need to take care of yourself while you're there.

There are plenty of ways you can risk your health at the gym, from infection to injury. Here are six gym health risks -- and ways to avoid those problems.

Risk: Unqualified Staff

Does your personal trainer have a degree and/or certificate? Or did he pay a nominal fee and take a brief online test and presto, he's a fitness instructor? 

"Yes, that can happen," says Sherri McMillan, MSc, a spokeswoman for the IDEA Health and Fitness Association and a personal trainer at Northwest Personal Training & Northwest Women's Fitness Club in Vancouver, Wash., and Portland, Ore. "There are people out there who call themselves personal fitness trainers and instructors with minimal, outdated, or no qualifications."

Avoiding the Risk

Ask to see certificates and degrees and ensure they are current, McMillan advises. Certifying organizations include the American Council on Exercise, the American College of Sports Medicine, and the National Strength and Conditioning Association.

Specialists may have specific certificates, such as those offered by the Pilates Method Alliance for Pilates instructors. McMillan also recommends asking about recent workshops or conferences your fitness pro has attended to make sure they're staying current in the field.

It's also important to make sure team members are certified in CPR/fitness first aid and automated external defibrillator (AED), a portable electronic device that can treat sudden cardiac arrest. Make sure the gym staff knows where the first aid kit and AED are located, McMillan says.

Risk: Equipment Malfunction

Hundreds of people may use your gym's equipment every day. That can cause wear and tear to the equipment, which could lead to malfunction -- and risks to you. 

Avoiding the Risk

Ask the gym staff how often equipment is assessed and repaired, and speak up if you see something that's broken. "If you notice cables starting to fray or any piece of equipment that doesn't seem to be operating correctly or effectively, stop using it and report the issue to a staff member," McMillan says.

Risk: Improper Exercise Selection and/or Form

Choosing the wrong exercises and/or using improper form is one of the most common hazards in the gym, says Neal I. Pire, MA, CSCS, FACSM, president of Inspire Training Systems and a spokesman for the American College of Sports Medicine. "Just because an exercise is 'Mr. Olympia's' favorite' does not mean it is a good choice for you. Couple this philosophy with not asking for professional help from a personal trainer, and you are ripe for a mishap that will land you at the neighborhood orthopaedist."

Avoiding the Risk

"Know your limits," McMillan says. "You know your body better than anyone." If you have special risks or conditions -- such as a bad back, high blood pressure, recent surgery -- tell your trainer so they can tailor your exercise program to your individual needs.

Risk: Falls

Jumping, running, and moving around various objects in the gym can increase your risk of tripping and falling. 

Avoiding the Risk

Be aware of your surroundings, McMillan cautions. Watch for items that you might trip over -- such as a water bottle, hand weight, piece of equipment, sweatshirt, or even a loose set of keys -- and move them to a safer location. Be especially careful in wet areas around showers, pools, and hot tubs, where you're even more likely to slip and fall. 

Risk: Sprains and Strains

Trying to lift too much weight, using poor technique, overdoing your workouts, and stretching incorrectly can lead to sprains and strains.

Avoiding the Risk

If you are questioning whether you can safely complete a movement, drill, or exercise, it's probably best to back off in order to ensure you don't push too hard and injure yourself, McMillan says.

Her advice: If something doesn't feel right, stop what you're doing immediately, ask for ice, elevate and rest the injured body part, and apply compression to minimize swelling. Tell a gym staff person exactly what happened and document everything, McMillan advises. 

"Even if you're feeling OK, it's always best to call a family member to come and get you," McMillan says. "Sometimes the adrenaline kicks in and you don't realize how injured you really are until later. During this time, you could do even more damage."

Risk: Infections

Germs and bacteria are found everywhere, including gyms. The last thing you want when you're trying to be healthy is to get sick because of your health club.

Fungi, bacteria, and viruses are common in wet areas such as showers and swimming pool decks, Pire says. Sweat left to dry on equipment is also a breeding ground for bacteria.

Bacteria can also thrive on used towels on locker room floors, weights, sweaty cardio machines, and benches that members sit on between workouts, says Matt Carlen, director of LifeBridge Health and Fitness in Baltimore.

Avoiding the Risk

If your gym has a swimming pool or hot tub, ask the staff how often they are cleaned and how often the chemical balance is checked, suggests Henry Williford, EdD, FACSM, professor of physical education and exercise science at Auburn University and a spokesman for the American College of Sports Medicine.

Pire recommends wearing "shower shoes" or flip-flops to help minimize your chances of getting athlete's foot, toenail fungus, and viral or bacterial infections.

Wash your hands frequently, wipe down the equipment before and after you work out, and sit on a towel when in the sauna or on benches, McMillan says.

All gyms should have an automatic sanitizer dispenser, Carlen says. "Make sure you use it as much as you can," he says. (It doesn't hurt to bring your own hand sanitizer with you, as well.) With cold and flu season upon us, if you're sick with a cold or flu, stay home until you've been free of fever for at least a day, so you don't spread your germs.

Once you know the risks of working out and how to avoid them, you can get back to doing what you came to the gym for in the first place -- staying healthy.
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