Is gym work really good for you?

GYMS where poorly qualified personal trainers push people too hard are 'accidents waiting to happen'.

Let's call her Andrea. It's not her name. Her family don't want me to identify her. It's complicated. Divided loyalties.

Andrea's a farmer's wife, so she knew what physical work is before she joined a gym last year. Her sister tells me she was very fit, a runner, but at 49 she was carrying a bit of weight so she decided on an exercise programme with a personal trainer.

The chap they assigned her was a youngster, only a few months out of a local polytech course. He was working unsupervised.

The security camera footage doesn't show her hitting her head on the hard floor of concrete covered by thin carpet. The instant of impact is obscured by the body of another gym member. But you can see what happened just before. She was doing what's called a resistance band walk, wearing a harness connected by an elastic band to an anchor on the wall. She walks towards the trainer as the band tightens. Then, as she took a step back, she tripped and fell.

Andrea spent 12 weeks in an induced coma. Her sister was told three times she would die. Her head injuries - three haematomas on the brain and a skull fracture - have left her with "a permanent disability that will require long-term support and assistance", says the Labour Department report into the incident.

She has lost her sense of taste and smell for ever. She can't raise her arms. And she's a changed woman, fretful, anxious and indecisive.

It might be seen as just an unhappy accident. Certainly the bland report of the investigation seems to have done little more than accept the gym's assurances and found no cause for action.

But Dr Simon Mayhew sees gyms as accidents waiting to happen. A doctor who specialises in sports medicine, he sees a lot patients with substantial injuries from pushing themselves - and being pushed - too hard in the gym.

He deplores the rise of the "no pain, no gain" gym culture in which fit youngsters with dubious qualifications are put in charge of people whose medical history and, particularly, cardiac risk profile they have no idea about.

"You pay money and assume they have the right sort of qualification but there is no way that Joe Public can tell," he says. "People say they have 'a diploma in PT [personal training]'. I've no idea what [that] means, whether it is a weekend course or what. Clients go in and the gym says 'sign here - we'll get your weight down'."

Stats seem to bear out the idea that the passion for personal trainers is taking a toll. Figures provided by Fitness New Zealand, the industry association for the fitness industry, show one in eight of us are signed up to a gym (up from one in 11 in 1995). Over the same period the number of personal trainers has increased tenfold, from 200 to 2000. And ACC figures show that in just the past five years gym accidents have increased by 330 per cent (and claim costs by 251 per cent). A small increase in gym use; a massive increase in trainer use and injury.

My own experience, a mild inconvenience compared to Andrea's, is instructive. When I signed up with a personal trainer, I'd never lifted a gym weight. He soon had me lying down and pumping 15kg weights while he bellowed "Come on, champ" in my ear. I tore a shoulder muscle and sacked him.

Such people do little more than generate business for physiotherapists and orthopaedic surgeons, Mayhew says. "They reckon you have to be sore the next day, but it's bullshit. If you are smart, you don't need to feel pain."

He wants a clear standard so gym users can know there is an appropriately qualified exercise prescriber at the gym. It's no more than the regulation other health professionals have.

Richard Beddie, the head of Fitness NZ, tells me that about 60,000 people use a fitness trainer regularly and many more occasionally. He recommends the use of trainers on the New Zealand Register of Exercise Professionals (REP) who undergo an annual independent check against international standards to ensure they can deliver safe and effective exercise advice. Mayhew says that's a start, but it's a voluntary body.