Ford Vox: Treadmills are usually very beneficial, but Dave Goldberg's death raises issue of accidental head and spine injuries
He says your mental state, your focus (no multitasking) and feeling "off your game" are among things to consider for safe practices
Editor’s Note: Ford Vox is a physician specializing in rehabilitation medicine and a journalist based in Atlanta. He writes frequently for CNN Opinion. Follow him on Twitter @FordVox. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Let’s get this out of the way first: Working out on a treadmill is far more likely to improve your health than harm it. That said, the tragic death of Silicon Valley executive Dave Goldberg can be an important reminder to the public to heed a few safety tips when using these popular machines.
Goldberg, the husband of Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg, was vacationing with his family in Mexico when he reportedly fell off a treadmill during an afternoon workout, striking his head. A Mexican official told reporters bluntly that Goldberg “cracked his head open” and died from a brain injury and massive blood loss.
Now it’s certainly possible that Goldberg suffered some other medical event before he fell. He apparently lay on the floor for up to three hours before his brother discovered him, so foul play is also possible. Mexican authorities haven’t disclosed the details of any investigation, if there was one, or an autopsy report.
Assuming Goldberg was healthy and suffered grievous harm solely from the treadmill accident, what should we do?
Just as you’re likely to commute home safe and sound without being injured in a car collision, treadmills usually get the job done without disaster. But on treadmills, as with driving, you must follow safe practices, maintaining the proper mental state and focus, and that means avoiding fiddling with your phone. It’s probably not a coincidence that exercise equipment injury rates jumped markedly after the introduction of the iPhone.
But all safety advice is local. For example, a treadmill was a safer option for people who love to run than the snowy streets of Boston this winter. A pedestrian is killed in traffic every two hours in the United States, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Meanwhile, treadmill deaths are rare – “between 2003 and 2012, there were 30 deaths associated with treadmills, for an average of three deaths per year, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission,” says an article in LiveScience.
When I heard about Goldberg’s cause of death, I thought about the patient population I treat at Shepherd Center, a rehabilitation hospital in Atlanta, where we treat hundreds of traumatic brain injury and spinal cord injury patients every year. I’ve never seen a treadmill injury, so I polled several of my colleagues, and among the seven of us, only two doctors could ever recall treating a treadmill injury victim.
One patient fell off his treadmill and suffered a neck fracture that led to quadriplegia. Another suffered a severe traumatic brain injury. One doctor who treated a treadmill victim makes a point to tell his recovering patients to avoid treadmills or be wary of them.
We use treadmills in rehab, but usually we’ll rig up safety harnesses because of the high fall risk among people with unsteady gaits. A safety harness, even for a home treadmill, is worth considering if you love this kind of workout but deal with imbalance for any reason.
It’s important to think about treadmill falls in the context of all types of falls, which, taken as a total, are the top cause of traumatic brain injury and the second leading cause of spinal cord injury. You name the piece of equipment, or the piece of furniture, and there’s an injury rate associated with it, with falls typically the major mechanism.
So humans must constantly gauge fall risks. For example, starting around this time of year, a new wave of patients rolls through our doors after suffering grievous trauma through head-first diving accidents. Never dive head-first into any body of water, ever. Always enter water feet first. It’s just not worth the risk.
There are a few practical tips that will help limit your risk of being injured on a treadmill, and I’ve listed them below.
Beyond reinforcing these precautions, I hope this high-profile accident will spur the treadmill industry toward greater innovations. I’m impressed with newer models that automatically stop when your feet aren’t on the belt, rather than relying on clip-on emergency stop lanyards that nobody ever seems to use.
But how about some artificial intelligence that could really save our noggins and necks? Your treadmill could detect abnormalities in your heart rhythm or gait pattern before disaster strikes, warning you or stopping. I’m sure we’ll get there – and better.
In the meantime, please follow these safety tips:
• Don’t stand on the belt when you press the “On” button. Straddle it, then step on the moving belt on a slow setting.
• Keep the area around your treadmill clear of anything you wouldn’t be happy landing on. Add plenty of space in case you manage to fling yourself off at speed.
• Don’t box your treadmill against a wall, as you could end up trapped between the wall and the running machine.
• Always wear the emergency stop key, despite how uncool it looks.
• On a treadmill you’ve never used before? Don’t watch TV this time. Get used to it first.
• Limit the multitasking. Save answering emails, texting and making phone calls for later.
• Don’t feel good? If you’re off your game in any way, but still feel like exercising, choose a gym activity that’s a little milder and less demanding and not so severely punishing if you trip up. Save the treadmill for your “A” game. This goes for after you’ve started as well. Feeling a little lightheaded, or caught your toe once or twice? Time to move on.