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Treadmill Usage Not Safe for Most Seniors -

Michelle Streif, MA, CPT, GFI, Clinical Exercise Specialist

As our 50+ population rapidly grows, we want Boomers and Seniors to be healthy and fit, but safe and appropriate exercises are different for everyone.

Walking on hard surfaces and treadmills are a common and easy way to exercise and can benefit the heart and lungs if one walks briskly enough. However, walking also presents many issues which are not recommended for several health issues. This of course, excludes rehab exercises under the supervision of a physical therapist.

First of all, walking on a hard surface (sidewalks, the floor at the mall…) creates impact that can aggravate arthritic joints; particularly the knees, feet, hips, and even the spine, shin splints and plantar fasciitis. Treadmills do offer some shock absorption, but the more one weighs and the faster the pace, the more impact. So, we are supposed to walk at a brisk pace to benefit the heart and lungs, but this can bother the joints.

Another problem is that treadmills can actually worsen gait and posture. In order for the body to move as it should, we must stand tall, swing our arms with each rhythmic step, and gently land heel to toes with each step. The more you move with poor gait and posture, the more likely you are to advance poor balance, gait and posture. Holding on to the treadmill makes proper gait cycle impossible, but not holding on can be dangerous for most.

Walking on a moving surface can also cause or contribute to dizziness, which is also a common side effect of many medications. Becoming dizzy while on a treadmill can result in a catastrophic fall.

Last May, 47 year-old CEO of SurveyMonkey, Dave Goldberg died after falling on a treadmill and hitting his head while exercising at a gym. This tragic accident brought more awareness to the dangers of treadmill use; especially for the 50+ population.

According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, 24,400 injuries resulting in emergency room visits were related to treadmills in 2014.

At WellBound Fitness for Boomers & Seniors in Omaha, NE, they specialize in making and keeping the 50+ population healthy, with several members over 90 years old. This facility replaced all their treadmills with rotary walkers. WellBound staff all agree that the rotary walkers offer far more benefit and far less risk than treadmills. After working with older adults in rehab and fitness for 28 years, their manager says their members are not afraid of the rotary walkers and they improve gait, balance, strength, and cardiovascular health by using them regularly.

Rotary walkers are a form of elliptical machine that have large foot petals, are controlled by the user, and the safest brands allow one to exercise with no incline if they choose to.

In order to build overall cardiovascular and muscular strength and endurance, the goal is to be able to support your own body weight. Recumbent bikes and steppers are a good start for those new exercisers or post rehabilitation patients, but ultimately one has to safely challenge the body and venture out of the "easy" zone. This does not mean one should overdo. It simply means that gradual and safe progression is what improves health and disease management and quality of life.

The rotary walkers which WellBound chose for members are no-impact, joint friendly, posture enhancing machines that require the use of more muscles that other cardiovascular equipment including treadmills. They require no minimum speed or workload, so they are ideal for those who want a more intense workout, or those who are deconditioned or just graduating from various types of rehab.

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