It’s a pretty straightforward piece of equipment and you’ve been walking and running for how many years now? How difficult can it be to try a treadmill for the first time?
Yet more than 460,000 people found out about the dangers the hard way when they suffered injuries related to exercise equipment, according to data for 2012. About 32,000 people were hospitalized or dead on arrival after those accidents and, according to one study, 66 percent of gym injuries involve treadmills. The tragic death of Dave Goldberg, CEO of SurveyMonkey and husband of Facebook exec Sheryl Sandberg, is the exclamation point at the end of this warning.
So if you’re on vacation, as Goldberg was, and get a hankering to jump on the treadmill, or you’re a novice starting an exercise program, here are some great tips on how to use the treadmill safely. They come from exercise physiologist Mike Bracko of Calgary, Alberta, who wrote the American College of Sports Medicine’s guide on treadmills. (The guide covers home treadmills but the lessons apply in the gym as well.)
▪ No phones! Or as Bracko put it: “Don’t look at your friggin’ phone, man. You’ve got to set your priorities. If it’s exercise, it’s exercise.” Many people don’t realize at first that the running or walking gait you use on a treadmill is different from the one you use in real life. Until you’re accustomed to that, and even once you are, looking at your phone is a major distraction that can cause you to trip.
“If you trip, you’re going to go down and it’s not going to be pretty,” Bracko said.
But what if your music is in your phone (for those of you comfortable enough to listen on the treadmill)? Set it to airplane mode, Bracko said, so you won’t be tempted to respond to each ping or vibration as emails and texts arrive. And set your playlist so you won’t have to fiddle with a phone or iPod while you’re running.
▪ Clip the emergency stop mechanism to your shirt or shorts. Don’t skip this step (!) and don’t hold it in your hand.
▪ Straddle the treadmill with your feet on the rubber strips that are on either side of the belt. Hit “Quickstart” to get the treadmill rolling at a very slow pace, .5 or 1 mph. Don’t worry about any other buttons — your weight, your pace, workout length — yet. Start walking on the treadmill. Keep the pace slow until you’re comfortable, then very gradually increase it until you’re walking at a moderate pace. Get the feel of how each increase in speed affects the tread below your feet.
What’s a moderate pace? Take the talk test: If you can’t easily hold a conversation without huffing and puffing, you’re going too fast.
▪ No running the first time. Bracko believes your first session on a treadmill should be a 20- to 30-minute walk, even if you’re an experienced outdoor runner. “A treadmill is so much different than running on a trail or a sidewalk,” he said.
But what if you need a tougher workout? Use the incline button to raise the treadmill so you’re going uphill. But keep walking.
▪ Try to ignore the TVs and everyone around you. It’s difficult, but at first you need to keep your eyes on the console as you develop the balance and proprioception — the awareness of your body as you move — needed to use a treadmill. It’s a good idea to have your feet in your peripheral vision as you start out.
▪ Kids must be closely supervised around treadmills. Boxer Mike Tyson’s 4-year-old daughter was killed when she became tangled in a cord connected to a treadmill in 2009, and many children have suffered burns and extremity injuries after getting their hands caught in the moving belt.
If the treadmill is in your home and you have young children, disable it after each use. And make sure it’s positioned away from walls, cabinets and other hard objects that can cause injuries if an accident occurs, as Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., learned painfully when his exercise band snapped and propelled him into some furniture at his Las Vegas home. The minority leader suffered a serious eye injury.
Bracko said there is no good way to know the safe age for a child to use a treadmill. You’ll have to gauge your child’s training age — that is, when he or she has the maturity and coordination to use a treadmill. And again, closely supervise youngsters using such machines.
▪ Getting off the treadmill. Slow it down gradually, almost to a stop. Don’t stop abruptly, which can cause you to lose your balance, or try to get off a rapidly moving treadmill. When the device is moving at its slowest pace, hold the handrails and place one foot at a time on the rubber strips, so that you are straddling the belt. Hit stop and unclip the emergency device. Turn around and walk off on the rubber strips, not the belt.
I asked Bracko what else people tend to do wrong in the gym and his answer surprised me: It’s the way they lift and put back weights, kettle bells and medicine balls at the rack. While many people are careful about the way they lift these heavy objects while exercising, they become lax about grabbing them or putting them back, especially after a set has tired them. Instead of using their legs, they bend and lift from the lower back, endangering the disks in their spines.
Similarly, he said, too many people are still doing sit-ups, crunches and straight leg lifts that endanger these disks. Replace them with front and side planks and medicine ball chops, he said.