Feeling the Burn: At-Home Exercise Injuries Surge During Pandemic

As COVID-19 forces workout routines out of the gym and into the home, federal data shows Americans are hurting themselves in droves.

Published Aug. 5, 2021

Key Findings

  •  At-home exercise injuries that resulted in a visit to the emergency room increased by more than 48% from 2019 to 2020.

  • Nearly 30% of all exercise-related injuries suffered in the home were among people aged 65 and older.

  • Treadmills and exercise bikes were the exercise equipment most associated with at-home injuries. 

Study Overview

Gyms and fitness centers all over the U.S. shuttered their doors during the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing millions of Americans to exercise in the safety of their own home. 

But while living rooms, basements and garages provided relief from potential coronavirus infection at gyms and fitness centers, those home workouts presented plenty of other dangers. Our analysis of data from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission's National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS) shows a sharp increase in at-home injuries resulting from exercise since the start of the pandemic. 

At-Home Exercise Injuries Increased 48% from 2019 to 2020

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Graphic chart showing the increase in at-home exercise injuries from 2019 to 2020

The fitness world, much like most of the rest of the world, was upended by COVID-19 restrictions in 2020. According to the Global Health & Fitness Association, fitness industry revenue dropped 58% in 2020, and more than 38,000 gyms and health clubs closed their doors  for at least a portion of the year. 

Fortunately, that didn’t discourage people from working out entirely. Sales of fitness equipment grew by 170% during that time as Americans installed pull-up bars in doorways, Peloton bikes in bedrooms and replaced Netflix with online workout videos. 

But as those home workouts became more frequent, so too did the injuries. There were an estimated 25,349 exercise-related injuries that occurred inside the home in 2019 and sent people to the ER. In 2020, that number spiked to 37,522, a 48% increase. 

“Over the past 18 months, I have experienced clients complaining of various different injuries…much of this is due to a lower level of general activity across the day and muscles tightening from being in a seated position. What can also contribute to this is that many people have taken on home workouts that involve new movements.” – Brett Durney, Personal Trainer, Co-Founder, Fitness Lab

Older Adults Suffered More Than a Quarter of Workout Injuries

Seniors suffered serious at-home workout injuries at a rate much higher than adults of other age groups. 28% of the home workout injuries that sent people to the ER in 2020 (over 10,500 injuries according to national estimates) were suffered by those age 65 and over. 

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Graphic chart showing rate of at-home exercise injuries according to age group

Older adults are more likely to suffer an exercise-related injury due to diminished flexibility, loss of muscle mass and worsening balance, among other factors. In 2020, seniors were also more likely to exercise from home even after gyms reopened, largely due to the continued risk of serious COVID-19 infection and death for people aged 65 and over.

Across all age groups, women were found to have accounted for a slightly higher rate of injuries, with 54% of injuries occurring in women and 46% in men. 

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Graphic chart showing rate of at-home exercise injuries according to gender

Treadmills Accounted for the Highest Percentage of Injuries

Exercise equipment comes in all shapes and sizes, and there’s a myriad of ways to get hurt while using it. For example, the NEISS data includes a report of one 24-year-old male who suffered a finger amputation when his treadmill closed on his finger. Treadmills accounted for nearly a quarter of all at-home exercise injuries in 2020, followed by exercise bikes at 14%.

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Graphic chart showing rate of at-home exercise injuries according to the cause of injury

Push ups, stretching, yoga and running – none of which require much equipment at all – were next on the list. These four exercise activities combined to account for nearly four in 10 at-home workout injuries in 2020. 

Brett Durney, Personal Trainer and Co-Founder of London-based Fitness Lab, suggests a possible reason why people hurt themselves when working out from home is that they have not received proper instruction about how to properly set up their home workout equipment. 

“Ensure that a professional installs your equipment and that a maintenance plan is put in place so that the machines are maintained at least once every 6 to 12 months,” Durney says. “Setting up an exercise bike may seem like an easy task, but it’s actually not in practice. Understanding leg length, seat height, how far forward or back the seat should be and how high the handlebars can be can really affect your riding positions.”

One injury reported in the NEISS data detailed a 62-year-old man who suffered a concussion while using a new workout bench in his home. The bench had not been set up correctly and collapsed, causing him to fall and hit his head.

“Since more people are working out at home, I have seen an increase in lower back injuries. This may be correlated with people spending more time sitting at home on their computers, which can lead to weakening of the core muscles. And weakness of the core can lead to many injuries, including lower back pain, hip pain and even ankle injuries.” – Dr. Sara Mikulsky, PT, DPT, FNS, CEAS

How to Stay Safe Exercising from Home

Most of the advice for staying safe while exercising at a gym applies to working out at home: Stretch, warm up, stay hydrated and know your limits. 

Durney says one possible reason for injuries is that people working out from home don’t have the benefit of a personal trainer to teach them how to safely perform the exercise.  

“Take for example a dynamic yoga class that is delivered online,” says Durney. “Someone may never have completed a yoga class in their life and then jump straight into completing an online yoga class at home. If they are not knowledgeable and they don’t understand the biomechanics behind doing an exercise such as the downward dog, it may result in some unfortunate injuries.”

Dr. Sara Mikulsky, Doctor of Physical Therapy, certified NASM personal trainer and owner of Wellness Physical Therapy, PLLC, echoes Durney’s advice about having professional help before diving into a new workout routine on your own.

“It’s always a good idea to first have at least one session with a professional who can design a program for you,” Dr. Mikulsky says. “The professional can also determine what equipment will work best with your body and for your fitness goals.”

Here are some extra tips to keep in mind when exercising at home.

1. Make Sure You Have Proper Footwear

Just because you’re in your living room doesn’t mean you can exercise safely in your socks or sandals. Proper footwear is key to maintaining balance and traction while also providing some added protection against a dropped dumbbell or other piece of equipment.

2. Clear Out Plenty of Space

Having enough clearance for arm and leg movements alone isn’t enough. It’s important to provide some additional buffer space between you and any furniture or walls in case you were to stumble or fall sideways. 

3. Use a Mirror

The full-length mirrors in gyms aren’t for checking out your abs. They’re for checking your posture and technique, which is critical to avoiding injury. Investing in a full-length mirror for your home workout space can be an investment in your safety, says Durney. 

“Work out in a room in your house which has a mirror or place a mirror in a place in your house where you work out,” Durney says. “Just the simple ability to be able to check your form on a regular basis while you’re exercising will significantly reduce the chances of injury.”

4. Use a Workout Mat

There’s a reason why fitness centers are outfitted with foam matting. This soft surface absorbs some of the pressure of heavy and fast movements while also providing a soft place to land in the event of a fall.

Exercising on a tile or hardwood floor is not recommended, and even most carpeted rooms do not provide ample cushioning. Home exercise mats can cost very little and can be bought at sporting goods stores and many major retailers.

5. Cross train

You may be used to doing a variety of exercises at the gym and switching up your routine according to the day. This is key to avoiding injury due to overuse.

However, it’s easy to fall victim to simply performing the same exercises day after day when working out at home due to not having access to a full gym. Performing the same movements every day can lead to overuse injuries, so develop a few different routines you can alternate through just as you would at a gym.

6. Listen to Your Body

Dr. Mikulsky says at one of the most important things people can do when they workout from home is to pay attention to how their body feels during the exercise.

“When completing exercises, if something hurts or feels awkward, stop,” Dr. Mikulsky says. “Reposition yourself and try the exercise again. Most injuries occur when someone pushes through pain or an awkward position.”

Conclusion

The COVID-19 pandemic forced many Americans to exercise at home, where they were increasingly subjected to safety risks posed by exercise equipment and other dangers of the home. As a result, the number of at-home exercise injuries significantly increased. Older adults accounted for more injuries than other age groups, and treadmills were responsible for the most number of injuries. 

Methodology

We collected 2019 and 2020 data from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS), accessed July 2021. We examined the following product codes: 3277 (exercise equipment) and 3299 (exercise activity or apparel, without equipment).

For location, data was filtered for injuries that were specifically coded as having occurred at home. According to the CPSC, a substantial percentage of NEISS cases occurred at an unknown location. This may result in the reported rate of at-home workout injuries being lower than the actual overall rate.

Using weighted values provided by the NEISS, we estimated the national rates of exercise related injuries.

Only 2020 data was used for the graphics titled “Age Distribution of At-Home Exercise Injuries,” “Gender Distribution of At-Home Exercise Injuries,” and “Equipment or Activity Causing At-Home Exercise Injuries.”

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