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Keeping Group Exercise Safe

A checklist of safety precautions and guidelines should be used to help keep your members safe during group exercise classes.

Dr. Kenneth Cooper popularized the word "aerobics" in the 1960s to suggest participation in sustained, moderate-intensity physical activity to improve health and physical fitness. Cooper also mentioned the potential problems with such training, including injuries from falls, overuse, strains, shin splints, and collisions with other people or objects. Today we call it "group exercise," but the risk of injury remains the same.The following checklist is designed to keep potential problems just that -- potential -- rather than injuries. Less injury translates into fewer potential lawsuits and healthier members.

Group exercise safety checklist

Keep the following guidelines in mind when creating a safety checklist for group exercise.

Supervision. All instructors should be trained and certified by a recognized organization. The lack of qualified and certified instructors has caused many injuries. An instructor must be present at all times, and understand the art and skill of supervision. Overuse and beginning at too high a level of performance are major concerns for exercisers, especially considering the wide range of fitness levels among participants. Progressing slowly, but surely, and having a trained instructor with a "when in doubt, don't do it" attitude will lower the chance of injuries.

Supervision also means the following:

1. Being accessible and able to oversee the entire program systematically. A raised platform for instructors improves their sight line.

2. Having the ability to recognize dangerous situations and correct them immediately. Free weights scattered over the floor, for example, are a danger.

3. Possessing the knowledge of what to do if there is an emergency.

4. Controlling the situation by continually scanning the activity area, and checking the area before every class.

Equipment. Require appropriate footwear with good lateral and arch support, and have participants wear proper athletic activity attire. Also, remove unnecessary equipment from the activity floor, and buy equipment from reputable dealers who specialize in this area.

Facility. The group exercise floor is a big safety concern. The continual pounding of the body results in the most common injuries, such as sprains and strains. Falling due to a slippery or crowded floor is another too-common problem. The group exercise floor must be shock-absorbent, smooth, clean and dry. Avoid concrete and tile floors. Also, wet surfaces are a hazard. To prevent wet spots, drinking water should be limited to an outside area.

Also take the following into consideration:

1. Avoid overcrowding.The American College of Sport Medicine suggests 40 to 45 square inches of space per user. Offering an additional class can rectify space problems.

2. Use a PA system, but avoid excessive noise levels.

3. Make sure the room has windows for additional supervision.

4. Have mirrors in the room. Mirrors permit instructors to face and move in the same direction as the participants. They also permit participants to check their performance.

Informed consent and information.

1. A facility should provide reasonable signage and verbal reminders to inform and warn participants of potential problems.

2. Let participants know they do not have to keep up with the rest of the class, and can feel comfortable performing exercises at the tempo that's best for them. Remind participants to stop and inform the instructor of any problems.

3. Maintain all records, such as contracts, consent forms, equipment purchase records, accident reports, etc.

4. Remind participants about the need for drinking water.

Program and class details. Staff members should direct participants to appropriate class levels. In addition,each class should follow a progression of activities and intensity. Low-impact and upper-body activities can replace repetitive jumping movements. (Instructors can increase intensity by moving faster.) Ankle weights increase the risk of injury.

A basic class should include the following: a suggestion for members to obtain a medical evaluation prior to activity; start with basic instructions, reviews and warnings (two minutes); include a warm-up (10 to 12 minutes); espouse a gradual increase in activity (20 to 30 minutes); move to a decrease in intensity level (five minutes); break for a heart rate evaluation (five minutes into activity, and at regular intervals); include a cool-down (four to five minutes); and have some closing words, comments and/or areview.

Post-injury considerations

If a member does become injured, fitness center managers should have the following procedures ready:

1.Have phone and emergency numbers nearby.

2. Make sure instructors are trained in basic emergency care skills, such as first aid and CPR.

3. Have a complete first aid kit available.

4. Be able to immediately contact fitness center administrators when problems arise.

5. Give a copy of a written emergency plan to each instructor.

Lowering the chance of injury to participants is not difficult -- it only requires planning and vigilance.

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