Similar to a hospital, you'd expect the gym to be a healthy and safe place. But also similar to a hospital, gyms can have lurking, hidden dangers that leave you injured or sick if you're not careful.
While this information isn't intended to scare you away from getting fit, it will hopefully keep you safe when you're at the gym.
It might surprise you to learn that infections caused by <a href="http://housecalldoctor.quickanddirtytips.com/What-is-MRSA.aspx" target="_hplink">MRSA </a>(methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus) <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/12/opinion/12kristof.html" target="_hplink">kills more Americans</a> each year that AIDS, according to the <a href="http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/article/13/12/07-0629_article.htm" target="_hplink">Centers for Disease Control</a>. Unfortunately, I recently contracted MRSA from the dry sauna at my local gym. For me, it resulted in a trip to the emergency room, minor surgery, and lots of antibiotics. (You can read the chronicles of my horrible journey <a href="http://www.bengreenfieldfitness.com/2012/06/how-safe-are-you-from-this-creeping-killer-that-lives-in-gyms/" target="_hplink">here</a>.) No matter how clean a gym's locker room may appear to be, it is very easy for antibacterial-resistant "superbugs" to become immune to chemicals that are used to clean such places, and it only takes a small cut to allow bacteria under your skin. So when you're headed to the gym, make sure to thoroughly clean and disinfect any scrapes, cuts or abrasions, and then keep them covered during your workout and after.
In "Learn All About Weightlifting Machines," you <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ben-greenfield/learn-about-weight-lifting-machines_b_995005.html" target="_hplink">learn how to use</a> several popular machines at the gym. But just because an exercise machine is there, does not mean it's safe -- and there are some machines that should be completely avoided, even if you can do them with good form. In most cases, the machines you should try to avoid are: -Machine side raise (locks your shoulders into a range of motion and can damage your rotator cuff) -Machine abductor (puts you into a seated position with high low-back stress, while creating more torque on the low-back as your hips rotate out) -Machine adductor (see above) -Cable pulldowns behind your neck (unless you have very good shoulder flexibility, craning your neck can damage your upper spine) -Seated abdominal rotation machine (sitting and rotating under a load can strain your lower back) -Seated crunch machine (this can create very tight hip flexors and hurt your lower back) -Smith machine presses or squats (this machine locks you into very unnatural range of motion, and can hurt your shoulders or knees). (For more details, and some better alternatives to these machines, <a href="http://getfitguy.quickanddirtytips.com/top-7-exercises-to-avoid.aspx" target="_hplink">read</a> "Top 7 Exercises to Avoid.") <em>Flickr photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/sportsandsocial/2945530936/" target="_hplink">sportsandsocial</a></em>
From Bodypump to Crossfit, high-intensity classes that combine cardio bursts and weight training seem to have taken the fitness world by storm. But unless you're in tip-top shape, it can be extremely difficult to maintain good form on the weight training part of the class if you're completely exhausted from the cardio part. I've frequently observed gym-goers struggling to contort their necks, shoulders, backs, and knees to follow the pace of the instructor, while at the same time putting themselves at serious risk of injury. So before taking these type of classes, get yourself into shape by doing your own solo workouts that aren't under the pressure of a drill sergeant instructor, or take part in a class that lets you move at your own pace. <em>Flickr photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/arcticwarrior/5951384142/" target="_hplink">Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson</a></em>
Some spinning classes are very good. But many involve a high number of squats, hovers, push-ups, gyrations, hip thrusts, and other ridiculous moves that are not meant to be performed while you're pedaling a bicycle -- and these types of moves can put your shoulders and knees at a very high risk of injury. No accredited indoor cycling certification programs teaches these types of activities, but they're still used by instructors at many gyms. So if your spinning class instructor makes you feel as though you can't simply sit and pedal correctly for more than 15, 30, or even 60 seconds without having to flap your arms or jump up and down, you should find a new class. (<a href="http://www.bengreenfieldfitness.com/2009/06/a-spinning-indoor-cycling-instructor-gets-a-bit-hot-under-the-collar/" target="_hplink">Click here</a> to see two videos that show the type of spinning classes to avoid.)
Just because a food is sold at a health club does not mean it's healthy! In <a href="http://getfitguy.quickanddirtytips.com/is-your-protein-bar-healthy-3.aspx" target="_hplink">the article</a> "Is Your Protein Bar Healthy?" I discuss how the average protein bar can contain many unhealthy ingredients such as high-fructose corn syrup, fractionated palm kernel oil, artificial sweeteners, wheat, rice, or other refined sugars, and high amounts of gut-wrenching sugar alcohols. But it doesn't stop at protein bars. Many smoothies prepared and sold at your gym are made from sugar concentrates combined with highly processed protein powders and vegetable oils -- and typically dumped into a 20- to 24-oz. cup that allow you to easily suck down 600-1,000 calories in just a few minutes. Many a dutiful gym-goer slaves away on a treadmill for an hour, then grabs a smoothie on their way out the door that contains nearly twice the calories they actually burned during the workout! If you do need to grab a smoothie, look for something prepared with fresh fruit, not concentrate. If you need a protein bar, choose one with minimal ingredients (such as fruits and nuts), raw nuts and seeds, or rice crisps. And only use these foods as a quick snack to tide you over until you can get a real meal, and not as staples in your diet. <em>Flickr photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/stevendepolo/6950419247/" target="_hplink">stevendepolo</a></em>
This article is not meant to scare you away from pursuing your goals to get fit, or keep you from going to the gym. And the benefits of joining a health club certainly outweigh any risks. But like any good thing in life, you do need to be careful, be smart, and be educated. By following these tips, you can be sure that your trip to the gym doesn't sabotage your fitness, your waistline, or your health!
Ben Greenfield is a fitness and triathlon expert and host of the Get-Fit Guy podcast on the Quick and Dirty Tips network. His latest book is "Get-Fit Guy's Guide to Achieving Your Ideal Body: A Workout Plan for Your Unique Shape."
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