The risks of home exercise - do they outweigh the benefits?
On May 5th, New York based Peloton Interactive Inc., creators of the high-end home fitness equipment including connected spin-bikes and treadmills were forced to issue a full product recall of their Tread and Tread+ treadmill products following the tragic death of a six-year old child.
The accident happened when the child was pulled under the rear of the treadmill and comes amidst reports of a further 72 reports of adult users, children, pets and/or objects being pulled under the rear of the device. These incidents included 29 reports of injuries to children such as second- and third-degree abrasions, broken bones, and lacerations.
While accidents do of course happen, much hangs on how businesses respond when they do. The initial response from Peloton in late March - a sympathetic letter from CEO John Foley - was to submit to a Federal consumer probe while reminding owners of its devices to secure them when not in use and keeping space around the devices clear.
Following the investigation, Peloton yesterday issued a full product recall of over 125,000 of the devices, offering its customers their money back. The move while undoubtedly the right thing to do, hit upon Peloton financially - its share price dropped 15% wiping around $1.5 Billion from its value.
Home exercise during the pandemic
In early 2020 as COVID-19 tore around the nation, gyms and exercise studios were amongst the first businesses to close. As people faced into the prospect of staying at home, many resorted to ordering exercise equipment that could be used at home to maintain their mental and physical health. In May 2020, the sale of home exercise gear increased by 170%.
Online retailers sold out of everything from dumbells to skipping ropes - the more wealthy home exercise enthusiasts invested in home Peloton bikes and treadmills. By September 2020 Peloton reported that its global membership had doubled to 3.1 million from a year before, boosting its revenues to $607 million.
The unfortunate and tragic death of a child caused by a Peloton treadmill is indicative of another trend though - the number of serious accidents and other more trivial injuries that inevitably occurred as people lifted weights that were too heavy with bad technique. Heart-attacks and similar episodes came about due to ill-advised exercise programs and over-enthusiastic exercise that hadn't been overseen by trained professional trainers.
What was the extent of such episodes?
Millions suffer fitness injuries under lockdown
A 2015 study by the US National Institute of Health called out that the main causes of injury that occurred within public gyms, based on analysis of 15 years of recorded accidents were injuries due to overexertion (36.2% of all cases) and injuries related to general free weight activities (52.6% of this activity).
This data is indicative of the potential for problems that could potentially occur in a home-exercise setting too, where enthusiasm pushes people to train beyond safe limits. It seems particularly relevant considering that the most common purchases were likely of free weights rather than large and costly exercise machines.
These risks seem to have materialized during lockdown. A study carried out by the UK medical insurer, BUPA found that the enthusiasm for home workouts in the UK led to around seven million injuries, from sprains and strains to pulled muscles and back injuries. Their data also found that men were twice as likely to injure themselves than women.
The difference between exercising in a home setting compared to a gym is largely about the ready availability of trained coaches and instructors who are on hand to help people prevent injury through bad form or excessive training. The risk of injury cannot be mitigated entirely, but it removes some of the danger.
The incidents that occurred due to Peloton's treadmills are of course unfortunate accidents, and demonstrate that exercise equipment can be inherently dangerous - particularly when it has rapidly moving parts or involves heavy weights. Indeed, the NIH study reported that "crush injuries due to falling weights were common for all free weight activities".
The benefits of exercise outweigh the risk
There will be little that can console the family who lost their child due to the Peloton accident. The product recall will hopefully result in an improved design and perhaps enhanced safety mechanisms that ensure similar accidents don't happen again in future.
There are risks inherent in all active pursuits but these are generally outweighed by the benefits unlocked by exercise. Under COVID-19 lockdown these benefits became all the more important, prompting the trends towards home exercise. Numerous studies have determined that the increase in activity levels was significant.
One such study showed that 76% of citizens had taken up a new form of exercise during lockdown, while 81% of these participants intended to carry on with it once stay-at-home orders were lifted. Perhaps most significantly, besides the benefits for physical health of regular exercise, 75% of respondents reported that it had benefited their mental health while coping with the enforced changes to their lifestyle during 2020 and 2021.
As gyms open many will be eager to resume their usual forms of exercise, benefitting socially from going to the gym. Many others will be more cautious, and may just find that continuing to exercise at home works better for them, particularly if they've invested money in home equipment.
In spite of the effects of the Peloton product recall upon their business in the short term, it seems likely that home and remote exercise are likely to remain a big part of many people's lives. Product innovations will hopefully ensure that as many accidents as possible can be prevented
Just as many have become accustomed to home-working and see no need for a return to the daily commute, exercising at home suits many far better than going to the gym and promises to remain a big part of many people's lives.