How to stay safe on exercise equipment

Dave Goldberg’s tragic death is a reminder of treadmill danger

Published: May 05, 2015 12:30 PM
Photo: Levi Brown

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The sudden death of Silicon Valley executive Dave Goldberg is a tragic reminder of how dangerous exercise equipment can be. The 47-year-old Goldberg, who was on vacation with family and friends in Mexico, died on Friday, reportedly of head trauma and blood loss after falling off a treadmill. Between their powerful motors, fast-spinning belts, and dangling cords, treadmills cause tens of thousands of injuries each year, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Many of the injuries involve children, though adults are vulnerable as well, as this latest tragedy shows. The following safety tips from Consumer Reports’ exercise experts will help minimize the risks, whether you’re operating a treadmill at home or at an outside gym. 

Clear the area

Some of the most dangerous treadmill accidents involve people who loose their footing and end up pinned between a wall and the machine, whose spinning belt can cause serious skin burns and shearing. Clearance requirements vary by machine, so always follow the manufacturer's recommendations. If that information isn’t available, a good rule of thumb, according to ASTM International, a standard setting organization, is to leave at least 6 1/2 feet of free space at the back of the treadmill and about 1 1/2 feet at either side.        

Use the safety key

Even with adequate clearances around the treadmill, you should always use the safety key that’s found on all machines. One end plugs into the console and the other end clips onto your clothing. If you fall, the key will pop out of the console and the treadmill should come to a safe stop. 

Straddle the deck

Avoid starting the treadmill while standing on the belt. The motion could catch you by surprise and knock you off balance, sending you flying. Get into the habit of straddling the deck and allowing the belt to start moving before stepping on it.  

Keep your head up

If you’re new to the treadmill, you may be tempted to look at your feet as you run. But looking down (or off to the side) can cause you to lose your balance and fall. Always keep your head up and look ahead at the console or another focal point in the room.

Don’t overdo it

Keep track of your heart rate while you exercise. Many treadmills have hand contact heart rate monitors or you can use a separate monitor with a chest strap. We prefer chest strap monitors because they’re generally more reliable and you don’t have to worry about holding onto contact sensors while running, which can present its own balancing challenges.  

For normal healthy people, working at a moderate level of intensity is recommended. That means a target heart rate of between 64 and 76 percent of maximum heart rate (which is 220 minus your age). To work at a vigorous intensity, you should have clearance from your physician or have been exercising for a while. If you experience any signs or symptoms associated with heart attacks (chest pain, left arm or jaw pain, or numbness or dizziness) stop immediately and seek medical attention. 

Come to a complete stop

Trying to save time by hopping off the treadmill before it stops is another possible cause of injury. Always let the belt come to a complete stop before dismounting. It’s also important for you to know where the emergency shut-off button is located on the machine so that you can disable it immediately if necessary.

Keep children away

Children between the ages of 1 and 6 sustain more injuries from treadmills than any other age group. The injuries are often caused by falls leading to contusions and abrasions after the machine is accidentally turned on. Always remove the safety key and keep it out of reach when the treadmill is not in use. There have also been cases of children dying by asphyxiation after their necks become entangled in electrical wires hanging from the control panel. So the best policy is to keep children away from your home treadmill at all times.         

—Consumer Reports

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