This article originally appeared on Oxygen
While it’s disconcerting to see paramedics rushing into an exercise room, it does happen on occasion. Athletes who pass out from not eating enough or who insist on “working through the pain” with an injury that hasn’t quite healed — among other dangerous gym practices — may find themselves borrowing the fast track to emergencies. Luckily, most gym injuries are minor accidents and only result in hurt pride, like when you trip over your own step in an aerobics class.
However, following a few simple guidelines can help you avoid becoming a more serious statistic. Here are seven potentially dangerous mistakes that well-meaning athletes often make in the gym and tips to prevent them from happening to you.
7 dangerous gym practices that could hurt you
1. Not using the correct form
A lot of people push too hard, especially when they’re just starting out. “At first, do less than you think you can,” says Richard Cotton, exercise physiologist and spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise. “You can’t ‘go to failure’ on an exercise if you have less than six weeks of strength training. Inactive muscles aren’t as tough as active muscles. If you have pencil work, don’t Don’t expect to hit the gym and immediately plunge into a limitless exercise routine – more isn’t necessarily better.
Your resolution: Give yourself six weeks of strength training to establish a base before pushing hard. Hire a certified personal trainer to learn proper form and progression or take a group strength training class.
2. Ignore a weak or injured area
“Some people use exercise as punishment for not exercising,” Cotton says, “so they often ignore the pain and end up hurting themselves.” Someone with a weak back will ride a rowing machine, for example, instead of something more accommodating, like a recumbent bike.
Your resolution: Modify your exercises and/or start slowly when recovering from an injury. Seek help from a physical therapist or experienced trainer to modify your routine to accommodate a weak or lagging area. For example, it may be recommended to avoid the chest fly and only perform a partial chest press if you are recovering from a rotator cuff sprain. If you regularly injure yourself in the same areas, you may need to avoid certain exercises altogether until you are completely healed.
3. Not consuming enough calories
Athletes who combine hard training with low calorie intake in hopes of losing weight are at risk of dizziness, fainting and sometimes nausea. “It’s a mistake to believe that working out on an empty stomach burns more calories,” says Karen Brewton, registered dietitian for Wellness Services at Methodist Hospital in Houston, Texas. “You don’t feed your body when you need it. The first meal of the day kick-starts your metabolism.
Your resolution: Don’t skip meals and eat every few hours. “Yogurt is a great meal before and after exercise,” says Brewton. And it’s a good chance to get the calcium you need to prevent osteoporosis. “When watching your weight and cutting calories, you need to pay attention to good quality calories.”
4. Not going to this medical visit
“Most people get a checkup before starting an exercise program only if they’re older or have symptoms,” says Duncan. “Young women who feel good think they are immune, but they may not be.” If you have a family history of heart disease, a routine stress test may not even be enough to detect a problem.
Your resolution: Know your family history. “If anyone in your family has heart disease at a young age [less than 55 for men and less than 60 for women] – especially a parent or sibling – you are at increased risk, regardless of your weight and blood pressure,” says Dr. Dennis Goodman, senior board-certified cardiologist at Scripps Memorial Hospital. “Early testing for those at risk should start at age 18. Everyone should be screened for cholesterol from age 20, regardless of their risk.”
5. Not paying attention to what you are doing
Talking on your cell phone while walking – or running – on a treadmill or turning your head to talk to a friend can send you flying out of the machine with a torn back or a broken wrist – or worse. “The tragedy is that this injury may be enough to keep you out of exercise for six weeks,” says John Duncan, exercise physiologist and founder and CEO of ViaScan in Irving, Texas. “Injuries are the number one reason people interrupt exercise routines.”
Your resolution: Focus on the task at hand. Before getting on a treadmill, make sure the last person hasn’t let it run. (This exact accident happened recently at a local gym, resulting in a head injury.) Look around for sweat puddles or other “road hazards.” Leave your cell phone in your locker or at home. If someone strikes up a conversation with you while you’re lifting weights, ignore them until you’re done. Better to explain afterwards why you can’t talk in the middle of lifting weights above your head than to have to explain it to your orthopedist.
6. Copy another user’s form
Variety is essential if you want to continue to see progress in your fitness routine, unless you find your new exercise ideas by watching other people at the gym who may not know what what they do.
“You have no way of knowing if it’s this person’s first week in the gym or not and if you’re imitating someone doing the moves incorrectly,” Duncan notes. Also, avoid unsolicited advice unless it comes from a qualified professional.
Your resolution: Some exercises, like deadlifts or squats, should be relegated to those who really know what they’re doing or have received professional instruction on how to perform the movements correctly. Hire a certified and experienced personal trainer to help you perform the exercises with correct form to get the most out of any routine and avoid injury.
7. Not taking the time needed for a cold or flu
For your sake and that of other gym members, stay home if you hack, sneeze, or cough. Leaving a trail of unwanted microbes on benches and equipment and in the air harms the healthy people around you. Moreover, you can get worse with intense training.
Your resolution: If your symptoms occur from the neck upwards (like sneezing or a runny nose) in the absence of fever and body aches, the general rule of thumb is that you’re probably well enough to perform a modified workout.
“Although the infectious stage has passed [you’re most infectious just before the symptoms become overt], it’s wise to wait a week before returning to the gym,” says Dr. Jacob Teitelbaum, Medical Director of Fibromyalgia & Fatigue Centers. “Then go back to your previous level of training over a week or two.” Otherwise, if you have a fever, muscle aches, and other “under the neck” flu-like symptoms, doctors recommend that you rest until the symptoms subside.
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