Death focuses spotlight on perils of treadmills

Keeping from being too distracted may be a key to safely using treadmills, which increasingly have more bells and whistles to inform and entertain users.

The high profile death of a relatively young entrepreneur last week generated some much-needed discussion on the dangers of treadmills, particularly in this age of distraction.

Dave Goldberg, the chief executive officer of SurveyMonkey and husband of Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, died of head trauma after he slipped on a treadmill and hit his head during a family vacation in Mexico. He was only 47.

At the time of writing this column, the details of his death are still unknown, though he was exercising alone when he died.

But the accident also revealed that many people who are around treadmills, either as an avid user or just observer, have stories of users falling on them, getting flung off or burned and suffering a range of injuries, from deep embarrassment to concussions.

One local fitness instructor recalls the elderly mother of a prominent local businessman getting on a treadmill that someone left running. “(She) got on it and flew off the back. She left the gym in an ambulance. It was so sad! ... She showed up to the gym weeks later with a neck brace on.”

Charleston runner Tom Woodall, who is 54, recalls running fast on a “very good treadmill” 25 years ago and falling on the belt. “It threw me into the wall behind ... so hard that it knocked the breath out of me. The gym was full of people and many ran over. I was so embarrassed that I got back on and attempted to run again.”

Avid triathlete Diana Lynn Kondoleon Snyder of Mount Pleasant worked at gyms and YMCAs for years and has “a lot of (treadmill) stories.” One at a YMCA in Virginia involved a guy watching an NCAA basketball tournament game. “He started cheering, dropped his MP3, got all tangled up and slid off machine.”

And that was 2004.

As freakish as Goldberg’s death may have been, accidents on treadmills obviously are not.

Treadmills and other exercise equipment sent 460,000 people to the hospital in 2012, according to USA Today. An overwhelming majority were treated and released for relatively minor injuries. And the Sports & Fitness Industry Association says treadmills continue to be “the largest selling exercise equipment category by a large margin.”

Janess Graves, a professor at Washington State’s College of Nursing, led a 2013 study of exercise machine injuries that found treadmills account for the majority of such exercise equipment injuries, particularly in the home setting.

In the study of 1,782 injury reports from 2007 to 2011, she found that “treadmill machines comprise 66 percent of injuries.”

“Mechanical belt-driven equipment may present disproportionate injury risk in mechanical home exercise equipment,” she wrote in her study. “While we do not have data on the use of these machines, our study suggests the need to consider the hazards associated with in-home mechanical exercise equipment in the context of exercise recommendations.”

In an interview with The Washington Post, Graves adds she was shocked not only by the proportion of injuries caused by treadmills but also by the victims.

“We were surprised by the number of pediatric injuries that we saw,” she says. “There was a pretty high incidence among kids, especially 0 to 4 years old, also 5 to 9 years old.”

In many cases, Graves says the kids turned on their parents’ treadmills, only to burn their hands on the fast-moving tracks. In a worst scenario, they got their fingers caught in the powerful machines.

Graves adds that exercise equipment injuries, according to data from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, nearly tripled from 1991 to 2012.

And while a lot of that may be due to more Americans exercising in gyms and at homes, some of it may have to do with more distractions as well.

Personally, I’m not a fan of treadmills. I got on one for the first time in more than decade when I couldn’t bear to run in the cold and dark of last winter one more time. It took me 10 minutes to figure out the thing.

Today, commercial treadmills at health clubs feature an increasing number of buttons to be pushed and monitors to be checked, not to mention built-in television controls for built-in screens.

Then there are the people that can’t bear to part ways with their smart phone, swiping screens to check social media, emails and text messages. There’s no question cell phones and music players disorient people.

The Washington Post article points out that after the iPhone was introduced in 2007, the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System found exercise equipment injuries jumped 45 percent over the next three years.

All this may be a wake-up call not only to treadmill users but to gym owners and personal trainers to not take a member’s familiarity with treadmills for granted. There are a growing number of lawsuits that point to that as well.

Meanwhile, here’s another alternative to treadmills: Unplug, put the cell phone away and head outside, particularly in the glorious weather of May in the Lowcountry. Go for a walk, run or bike ride. A little fresh air can’t hurt you.

Reach David Quick at 937-5516.