More than 8,700 children under the age of 5 suffer injuries due to fitness equipment each year, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). The ever-popular treadmill tops the list, along with stationary bikes and stair-climbers—and most injuries involve the power cord.
Exercise Equipment Risks
"If you think about the trouble that babies and small children can get into just around normal household furnishings, I can't imagine a piece of gym equipment that a child couldn't be injured by," says Dr. Lara Zibners, a physician in New York and London and the author of If Your Kid Eats This Book, Everything Will Still Be Okay.
Whether mechanical or not, most fitness equipment poses some risk. Dr. Zibners points out that weights can be dropped and cause bruising or even broken bones. "Pulley types of equipment or machines with adjustable pieces can fall, become dislodged, or entangle or crush little fingers," she says. "Anything with a moving part is potentially dangerous to a curious hand or foot. Electronic pieces, such as treadmills and bicycles, carry not only the obvious danger of catching a limb within the moving wheels or belts, but also the risk of electrocution or strangulation if a child plays with the cord. Even a jump rope is a potential danger if it gets looped around a child's neck."
Before parents purchase any home gym equipment, they should take time to truly consider how disciplined they can realistically be when it comes to safety and injury prevention, says Dr. Zibners, including putting the equipment away, unplugging, and stowing after use.
Dr. Eric Plasker, a health and fitness expert from Atlanta and author of The 100 Year Lifestyle, agrees. "Any equipment that can be turned on accidentally by a toddler and/or that has moving parts can injure a baby or toddler," he says. "This includes treadmills and stationary bicycles. Infants and toddlers also can use moving parts such as bicycle pedals and elliptical footplates to try to lift themselves up from a crawling position to a standing position. If the parts move, the children can lose their balance and fall, injuring themselves. Also, to children, all machines, whether weights or cardio, look like they'd be fun to explore. Infants can get trapped in between the different elements of a piece of equipment and injure themselves in the process."
But even the most childproofed fitness room is still a hazard for small children. The safest gym, says Dr. Zibners, is one that isn't accessible to a child. "However, this is not always entirely possible or practical," she says. "If they must be present in the room while Mom or Dad is working out, they need to be safely out of harm's way. In other words, small infants can sit in a carrier seat or swing. Stationary play stations (because walkers carry their own risks) or playpens are great ideas, as long as the kid hasn't figured out how to escape."
Cardio and Weight Machines
"It's very dangerous to be on any type of cardio machine or weight machine with a baby or toddler in the room," says Dr. Plasker. "Babies and toddlers can be unpredictable and put you both in a compromised position that can cause them harm. They can get caught underneath your feet!"
If parents do include cardio equipment, Jeff Thomsen, a fitness entrepreneur and trainer from New Jersey, suggests parents put their cardio machines right up against the wall so the power cord is hidden under the machine. "If you like to watch TV and need it farther away, put a heavy-duty rug on top of the cord so it is hidden," he says.
"If parents aren't going to keep the kids out of the room, treadmills are definitely the most dangerous and should be avoided," says Dr. Plasker.
After the Workout
After the room is done being used, any and all electrical equipment should be unplugged and all cords securely wrapped and out of reach. "Folding up and putting away equipment when possible is a good idea, although parents should remember that children are curious critters and they explore everything in their paths," says Dr. Zibners. "So a folded up Stairmaster, for example, pushed against a wall, could be pulled on and possibly fall over onto a child."
Dr. Plasker also suggests keeping the room locked when you aren't using it. "Or place a child prevention barrier that keeps kids from getting into the room," he says. "Unplug any machines so your child can't accidentally turn it on. If you have pulley equipment, weights machines, or universal gyms, put the pin in the highest weight so that it is impossible for a small child to budge the weights and trap his- or herself."
"When your fitness equipment is not in use, make sure that the safety lanyard is wrapped around the clip and stored in a cup holder or somewhere a child cannot grab it," suggests Thomsen. "I also suggest setting the safety to the 'active' positions so a child cannot activate the machine even if the power is turned on."
Even with all the childproofing in the world, adult supervision is still a must. "If you do not allow your child to use electric appliances such as the stove and the washing machine, they should not be allowed near exercise equipment," says Dr. Mark Cohen, a board-certified internist and pediatrician, as well as chief of internal medicine with Lifetime Health Medical Group in New York. "There is no better safety measure than direct supervision of a child."