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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Staying on Ball at the Gym

Staying On Ball at the Gym
----Are gyms really healthy?
By Debbie Levine
It happened so suddenly that I had no idea what hit me, or to be more accurate, what I had hit. I found myself lying flat on the floor and   my head felt as if it was exploding. Crouched at my side a woman who looked vaguely familiar was persistently asking me my name.
"Debbie. Debbie Levine," I finally answered.
"Okay, your fine. Everything's fine. Nothing happened."
But I didn't feel fine; all I wanted to do was curl up and go to sleep. Instead, this nudnik kept on talking to me as she commanded me to stand up and walk to the closest chair.
My legs felt wobbly; the room was spinning, but somehow, I managed to take a few steps and collapse into the reclining seat of the shoulder press machine.
Slowly, I began recollecting the events of the last few minutes. I had been sitting on a stability ball,  bouncing up and down before moving to the next station in the circular workout, when the ball exploded with, as the ladies later told me,  there was an enormous boom that sounded as if a bomb had gone off, sending me flying backwards, straight onto my head.
The gym instructor kept on insisting that I was fine, and that I should go home to rest. I was frightened, very confused, and felt that I needed an ambulance, but felt ridiculous asking for one. After all, I was perfectly okay, right?  Instead, I asked one of the women exercising there to drive me to my HMO's out-of-hours emergency clinic.  The receptionist took one look at me, called the nurse, and within minutes I was hustled into an ambulance, on my way to Hadassah Hospital – sirens and all.
Hmmm… and I thought I was doing something good for my health by joining a gym.
The truth is, stability balls almost never explode. They're designed for people to exercise on, and if properly cared for, can hold up to 300 pounds. And even though I ended up suffering a concussion and had to spend close to a month resting before I returned to normal, the doctors and nurses in the emergency room kept on admonishing me not to let this accident keep me from going to the gym.
They may be right, but after this incident, I doubt I'll never use one of those balls again!
The medical staff had good reason for urging me to return to my regular exercise. A lot has been written about the importance of regular exercise – it helps us to stay healthy, lowers blood pressure, keep blood sugar in line, and have more energy. But as anyone who's tried to stick to an exercise regime (or a diet, for that matter) soon discover that although intellectually we understand the importance of regular exercise, actually getting down to the nitty-gritty and doing it is another matter -- which is part of the psychology behind joining a gym. It's similar to purchasing lunch at an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord -- even if you're not really hungry, you'll make sure to eat, because, by golly, you've paid for it!
"It's also a lot safer to exercise at a gym than at home," points out Mrs. R., a former gym owner. "What happened to you was really freak accident  -- this is the first time that I've heard of a stability ball exploding --  and it could have just as easily happened elsewhere. In the over ten years that I operated a gym, we had only two accidents – one time a woman fell of a step, and another time a woman started peddling the stationary bike before her foot was properly positioned – and there were hundreds of women using the equipment each day. On the other hand, every night I see dozens of woman power-walking on the hard pavement without realizing the damage this can cause to their knees. But the gym equivalent of a power-walk – the tread wheel – is designed to be easy on the body and minimize wear and tear. In addition, all gyms are supposed to have a qualified instructor available to provide guidance and make sure that the machines are being used properly. Don't forget, at the gym, you're exercising under professional supervision, and that's something that you'll never have at home!"
"There's also the social factor," points out Mrs. Devorah Shapiro, a grandmother many times over who tries– but doesn't always succeed – in attending three 45 minute classes at the gym each week. "Since the classes I attend our aimed mainly of older women, we spend a lot of time working on balance, a skill that is important in preventing falls. Sometimes I'm really amazed at the things I've learned to do, and I would have never done it on my own. But because I'm in a group with other women, we laugh a lot as we urge each other along.   The friendships that I've developed there continue even after the class is over. Sometimes," she chuckles, "we even go out for coffee and a pastry after our exercise class." (Hmmm… that's one danger that I didn't even consider when I started researching this article).
So what's the catch? Well, for one, gyms cost money. Many gyms charge a $50-100 registration fee, plus a monthly membership fee of anywhere from $50 to $100, with a minimum one year commitment. Although it's an incentive for taking advantage of the service, too often, people join with the best of intentions, but are unable to continue for a multitude of reasons from "boredom," to a change in career plans that clash with the hours that the gym are open, to (believe it or not) the gym changing its schedule.
"I joined a gym that was located just down the block from my office," begins Naomi Siegel, "because it was convenient, and I could stop in there on my way home from week. Then the gym cut its hours and is closed from 1:30 to 5:00 in the afternoon, well I finish work at 2:00. But because signed up for the entire year, I'm still paying my monthly fee, even though I almost never am able to take advantage of the service."
Less professional gyms may try to cut costs by hiring instructors or managers who are lacking proper training. A certified gym instructor understand the human body, and will know when to caution exuberant exercisers to take it easy, or give them tips on how to do things according to their own abilities. The elderly Mrs. Shapiro praises her exercise teacher: "Our Pilates teacher is amazing. She knows each of personally, and modifies the exercise according to our capabilities, so that we end up stretching ourselves, without overextending ourselves. It's really an art. But one time I attended a class where the teacher literally pushed us to the point of exhaustion. It took me a few days to recover, and, of course, I never went back to that class."
Over-exercising can be a real problem. I recently met a woman who caused serious injury to her back because, in her desire to "get back to herself," right after having a baby, she spent over an hour each day peddling the stationary bike at the gym, when she really should have been at home, recovering from birth and caring for her newborn.
And that brings us to the more serious problem of spending time in what often can only be described as a Hellenistic environment. Yes, it's a mitzvah to take care of our health, after all, it's a gift from Hashem that enables us to do the things that are truly important in life. But the atmosphere at many gyms -- from a language that insinuates body worship (body sculpture!) to loud, secular jungle-type music, lends itself to making the tefel as the ikar and can become spiritually dangerous.
Although anyone can purchase a few exercise machines and equipment, it takes a real health professional to run a gym properly.
Sara Meta, an ACE certified instructor and personal trainer who specializes in mobility and balance, had this to say about stability balls:  "Because a stability ball is an unstable surface, the core muscles, which are basically the muscles in the lower back, the abdominals, the gluteals (Sarah, this is how it's spelled, according to Meta)and the hip flexors, are constantly adjusting to maintain stability, sitting on a stability ball is of itself excellent exercise."
The following words left me speechless: "To prevent stress related injury, it's important to match the ball to the height of the person using it. When sitting, the knees should be at a perfect 90' angle, level with the hips, and the feet should be kept flat on the floor."
Although I have attended several different classes where we exercised while sitting on stability ball, none of the instructors had ever mentioned this point. 
Sara points out the disadvantages of exercise machines: "Machines stabilize the body during exercise, so although they develop muscle, they don't train a person to use those muscles in real life. A person can strengthen his arm muscles with a machine, but he still needs to learn how to properly align his back be able to lift groceries without hurting himself."
Any tips about working out at the gym?
"Go for quality rather than quantity," she begins. "That means fewer repetitions, but with proper form. Treadmills are great for cardio strength, and certainly much less stressful for the body than walking on pavement. But if you feel joint pain, STOP! Overdoing it can result in injury."  
Ruchie Herbst is Supervisor of the women’s division at the YVY Fitness Center and formerly an Aquatics Director for at various girl's camps in the Catskills. She is an American Red Cross certified Lifeguarding Instructor, Swimming Instructor and is a designated American Red Cross WSI Trainer.
So what should one look for in choosing a gym? I asked Ruchie "Look for a clean, modern facility, where the employees are licensed and required to undergo regular training.  Some positive signs: a cleaning staff that is highly visible, equipment is regularly repaired and maintained; the availability of customized lessons, friendly employees, and a general sense of camaraderie."
Ruchie points out, "Most gym accidents are preventable and people need to follow standard precautions. Don't exercise on an empty stomach first thing in the morning, or immediately after a meal. Stay hydrated while exercising. Don't overexert yourself to the point of exhaustion. If you're dizzy, nauseous, have blurred vision, feel faint, or feel pain in the back or joints, STOP exercising; if the symptoms continue, tell a gym employee. Always follow instructions. For example, shut off the treadmill after use and wear appropriate footgear.
"It's important that professional trainers are available and can be seen walking around the gym. At Yeled VYalda Fitness Center, a certified Personal Trainer orients the members in proper use of the equipment.  Orientations are conducted monthly and are mandatory for all members. "
Mrs. R., points out that "the forms that you signed are pretty standard, and all gyms that I am familiar with use similar forms. But at the same time gyms are required to have insurance, which means that if an accident does occur, the insurance company will be the one paying for any damages, and not the gym owner. So despite the forms, a responsible gym will accept responsibility for injury."
As I learned the hard way, it's important to be an educated consumer when choosing a gym, or exercise class, or even hiring a personal trainer. Don't be afraid to ask questions. Are the instructors and people running the gym trained? Was it just a one day in-house training, or did they get professional certification? If they are professionally certified, where did they study and are they constantly upgrading their certification? What about emergency training? The gym is there to provide us with a service, and we have the responsibility to make an educated choice.


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