Choosing a Safe Gym

Do you ever notice that when your local health club advertises in your area, the promos always feature these twenty-something male and female models with zero body fat wearing a cosmetic dentist's dream smile?

And naturally, the health club commercials show a facility that is sparkling new without one ounce of sweat on the machines. In fact, no one working out seems to be perspiring at all. Ah, a perfect place for the perfect body.


OK, reality check. Most people do not go to the gym having a perfectly toned body and in tip top shape. They go there to get in better shape and to be healthy. So, unlike the fitness nirvana portrayed in the advertisements, we need to be realistic and use a facility that is practical, safe and well supervised. After all, that monthly fee should go toward safety as well as fitness.

Really, how can we practice kick-boxing while flattening our abs, toning our butts, and changing our lives for the better if we also don't practice safety in our work-out plans? This is especially important because for the approximately 25 percent of Americans over the age of 35, unsupervised exercise without a prior, thorough medical exam may prove to be dangerous.

The Warm-up

A few years ago, the United States Department of Health and Human Services released an initiative called Healthy People 2000: National Health Promotion and Disease Prevention. (It has since been updated to Healthy People 2010.)

Part of this plan is to encourage Americans to increase their physical activity, partly because physical inactivity is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.

However, it is important to know that nearly one-fourth of all Americans age 35 and older have some form of cardiovascular disease, so the recommendation to exercise for those in this age group (especially for people just getting started) should probably include advice to get medical clearance from their healthcare professional prior to beginning an exercise program.

I mention the 35 and older set because this group represents the fastest growing segment of health and fitness club members, while also representing a group where the risk of heart disease begins to increase. (No, don't pack it up and say "I might as well eat chocolate while watching television on the couch, why take a chance on exercise?") The key is to exercise with safety in mind.

The benefits of safe exercise are a proven fact! Since this is so very important, and because many Americans are joining fitness centers, it is imperative that you choose a facility where safety is a standard practice.

The well-respected medical journal Circulation has published a health checklist for people who want to join a fitness facility, the highlights of which I am going to share with you.

  1. The first and most basic service your prospective health club should offer is a health questionnaire. This should be a brief set of questions which can help determine if you are in one of three categories: apparently healthy, have cardiac risk factors or currently have cardiovascular disease. Based upon this questionnaire, you may be asked to get a medical clearance from your healthcare professional before you hand over that payment.
  2. If you have cardiovascular disease, find out whether personnel at the facility you want to join include exercise specialists, health and fitness instructors, exercise leaders (certified by appropriate agencies, organizations, etc) and possibly nurses.
  3. Find out whether personnel are trained to recommend and supervise exercise for persons with cardiovascular and other chronic diseases (an example is diabetes).
  4. Check to see whether emergency policies and procedures are written out, reviewed, and practiced regularly by the professional staff at the facility. Some real-life examples include whether the staff is trained and proficient in CPR and basic first aid. It would be an added plus if the fitness center had an automatic defibrillator on site (these save lives)!
  5. See if the facility is clean, well-maintained and spacious enough to ensure safety and comfort during exercise.
  6. Make sure indoor facilities are climate controlled.
  7. Look to see if the shower and locker facilities are clean and well-maintained.
  8. Check to ensure that the exercise equipment is clean and working properly.
  9. Determine if the exercise leaders and health and fitness specialists are qualified and able to instruct men and women of various ages and fitness levels.
  10. Many clubs have cardiovascular equipment in areas where there is poor air circulation. Even if the air temperature in the club is in a good range, it is still important to have ceiling fans or other equipment to ensure a good air flow. In this way it will be easier for your body to evaporate perspiration in order to minimize your risk of a heat related illness.

OK everyone, now that we have our fitness checklist, let's get physically fit the old fashioned way: a day at a time with safety in mind. For more information on safe exercise at health and fitness facilities, call the American Heart Association at 1-800-242-8721.

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Copyright 2003, Dr. Rob Danoff

Robert Danoff, D.O., M.S., is a family physician. He is program director of Family Practice Residency Frankford Hospitals, Jefferson Health System, Philadelphia, Pa. He is also a medical correspondent for The Comcast Network, CN8, contributing writer for the New York Times Special Features and writes a weekly medical column for the Bucks Courier Times, Bucks County Pa.