Outsmart 5 Hidden Gym Dangers

You go to the gym to get healthier. But what you may not know is that there’s also a chance of getting sick or injured. The reality is that many hidden dangers exist in health clubs, from cold- and flu-causing viruses to risky equipment.

Fortunately, if you know the warning signs -- and how to respond -- you’ll significantly decrease your chances of health woes. Here, then, are the five worries to watch. Use these tips, and the only thing you’ll bring home from the gym is a better physique.

Gym Danger No. 1: Germs
Reality check: 73 percent of weightlifting equipment at the gym is contaminated with a cold virus, according to a study in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine. As if that wasn’t enough, a Journal of Athletic Training study reported that one in three people has a spreadable skin condition, such as athlete’s foot and ringworm.

  • Wipe down equipment with disinfectant spray and tissues before and after use.
  • Opt for vinyl or plastic gym bags, since bacteria are less apt to attach to these materials.
  • Wash your hands often and/or carry antibacterial gel
  • Keep your feet covered in the locker room (think: flip-flops) and use a towel as a barrier to avoid exposing your skin to any shared surfaces.
  • Bring your own mat and towel (clubs often transport clean and dirty towels in the same bins).
  • Cover your face with a tissue should you need to sneeze or cough.
  • Cover cuts or abrasions with a bandage.
  • Shower as soon as possible and wash sweaty clothes in hot water.

Gym Danger No. 2: Bad form
If your body is misaligned, you risk placing your joints in unhealthy positions. To steer clear of complications like stress fractures, torn cartilage and tendinitis, don’t be afraid to seek help. Consider hiring a qualified trainer to teach you proper form, or flag down the group instructor to give you pointers.

Also remember to warm up before exercising and stretch often. You should also pay attention to your range of motion, keeping your movements controlled and weight low, until you’ve got that exercise down pat.

Gym Danger No. 3: Too-heavy weights
More isn’t always better. At the gym, overdoing it can lead to physical injuries and mental burnout. In very rare cases, extreme overwork can lead to a dangerous condition called rhabdomyolysis, where the muscles break down and release toxins in the bloodstream. (Post-workout, if you’re feeling extremely sore, weak and fatigued; running a fever; and/or have dark-colored or blood-tinted urine, call your doctor.)

To stay safe, listen to your body and be aware of your limits. Also increase your effort gradually; don’t suddenly increase the amount of weight you’re lifting or distance you’re running.

Gym Danger No. 4: Unqualified trainer
Working with a personal trainer can help you learn how to exercise safely -- and reach your goals. Most trainers are professionals with outstanding credentials. But since there aren’t licensing requirements in the industry, virtually anyone -- including those with little experience or education -- can use the title “trainer.”

Before working with an instructor, ask about their certifications and education. Some reputable certifications: those from the American Council on Exercise (ACE), the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). Specialty disciplines, such as yoga and Pilates, have their own niche certifications, including ones offered by outlets like the Pilates Method Alliance and YogaFit. And all staff, regardless of what they teach, should be certified in CPR/fitness first aid and automated external defibrillator (AED).

Gym danger No. 5: Faulty equipment
Chances are hundreds of other exercisers use the same equipment at the gym -- that’s a lot of wear and tear. If you notice that a machine isn’t working as it should, or something seems amiss, stop and alert the staff immediately. You may also want to check with your health club’s management to see how often those weight machines and treadmills are maintained and assessed.

Create an At-Home Gym: Essential Fitness Supplies

What’s keeping you from the gym? Whether it’s job or family obligations, there are plenty of things that can derail your exercise goals. To make workouts as convenient as possible -- and increase your chances of getting them in -- it’s helpful to have some basic and inexpensive exercise equipment on hand at home.

The Essentials
Remember that your workout should include both cardio and strength training. The key to an effective cardio workout is simply getting your heart rate up. Understandably, not everyone has it in their budget to spring for a treadmill or an elliptical machine. Some good options for getting a cardio workout without any major equipment include jogging, jump rope or an exercise video that provides a good cardio workout.

For at-home strength training, pick up these two practical tools:

At-home fitness tool No. 1: Dumbbells. You’ll want a set of heavier ones you can use when working larger muscle groups (like your legs during dead lifts or weighted squats or lunges) and some lighter weights for working smaller muscles (like your shoulders during an overhead press).

At-home fitness tool No. 2: Resistance bands. Look for a stretchy band with a handle at both ends, which can be looped around a secure point or placed beneath your feet. It can be used for a variety of toning exercises.

For example, to do an overhead should press, place one or both feet in the center of the band. Holding a handle in each hand, bring your hands up beside your shoulders and press up, straightening your arms. The amount of resistance you’re working against depends on the tightness of the band: he greater the tension, the harder the exercise.

At-home fitness tool No. 3: A mat. If your workout area isn’t carpeted, you’ll need a mat to provide cushioning for exercises that involve lying or kneeling on the floor, such as sit-ups, crunches and push-ups.

Bonus Equipment
Here are a few of my other favorite tools that can help you add variety to your workouts and challenge your muscles in new ways:

  • Stability Ball: These inflatable balls are great for strengthening your abs and core muscles. You can use them to make basic core exercises, like crunches and planks more challenging because of the instability: Try holding a plank with your forearms on top of the ball and extend your legs straight out behind you. Challenge your core muscles to stabilize you while you work your shoulders by sitting on the ball and doing an overhead press with dumbbells.
  • Sponge Ball: Like a mini stability ball, these smaller inflatable balls are about nine inches in diameter. Want to tighten and tone your inner thighs? Place the ball between your thighs just above your knees and squeeze it tightly as you do squats. For extra burn, hold the squat and pulse your knees together.
  • Medicine Ball: Available in a variety of weights, medicine balls can be used to add resistance to body weight exercises, like weighted sit-ups or lunges with torso rotation. You can also use them to build upper body power and strength by throwing and catching them -- either straight up in the air or back and forth with a partner.
  • Foam Roller: Like getting massages? This is a much cheaper alternative that provides similar benefits for your muscles. Place this firm foam cylinder underneath a tight muscle or muscle group (like your hamstrings), placing as much of your weight on the roller as possible to add as much pressure as you can tolerate. Roll back and forth over the cylinder to work out knots within tight muscles.
  • TRX: If you’re looking to splurge, this suspension training system costs around $200 and consists of two long straps that you attach to a stable surface, like a doorframe. Using your own body weight and gravity as resistance, you can do hundreds of different exercises by holding the handles or placing your feet in the foot cradles. These exercises work your entire body and great for building strength (especially in your core) and improving balance and flexibility.

Don’t have any equipment at home right now? Try this quick and effective equipment-free workout.

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Photo: Corbis Images