Occupational therapist Shreemoyee Das, 27, developed a slipped disc within two weeks of joining a gym, a year ago. Das had an undiagnosed weak lower-back disc, which shifted when she lifted heavy weights.
"I wanted to do basic cardio but the trainer advised me to lift weights and do stretching exercises, which soon triggered severe pain in my lower back that radiated through my left thigh," says Das, who joined her neighbourhood gym in Ghaziabad hoping to improve her fitness levels.
"I stopped going to the gym and saw a doctor. An MRI revealed that a nerve was being pressed by a disc," she says. Her doctor at Max Hospital, Saket, says he gets at least one patient a week with gym-related injuries.
"Unsupervised exercising coupled with the general trend of people looking for quick results leads to them stretching the body's limits, causing injury. Back pain and neck pain are the most common results, with causes ranging from muscle sprain to a slipped disc," says Dr Bipin Walia, director of neurosurgery at Max.
Das acknowledges that she knew her fitness trainer was not certified, but she joined the gym anyway because its fees were far lower than the bigger chains in the area.
This competition between fitness chains is creating a vicious cycle of low quality, lack of training and further lowering of prices as a growing number of brands compete for customers.
Some also end up offering add-ons, such as self-defence training, kickboxing, spinning, pilates and power yoga, which their trainers have not studied at all.
"As customers, we are wrong in compromising on quality to save a little money, but even expensive gyms do not guarantee injury-free workouts," says Das. "A friend who trained in an expensive gym developed carpel tunnel syndrome because of overstress."
A key reason that fitness centres big and small are able to downgrade quality and instruction levels is that there are no safety or hygiene guidelines for the fitness and beauty industry.
"The biggest problem is that there is no mandatory certification for fitness trainers, which also means there is no liability," says Ramona Braganza, an international personal fitness consultant and celebrity trainer who has worked with Hollywood stars such as Jessica Alba and Halle Berry.
The Gurgaon sports department has been considering introducing regulations since 2005, but no steps have been taken so far. "These centres have proliferated in the past five years and there are no norms to control them or bring them under a scanner," admits district sports officer Ramesh Jangra.
Infection and sports-related injuries are common at gyms too. "I get an average of five patients each week with complaints of ligament issues, sprain or frozen shoulders due to over-exertion while exercising. People experience such injuries in the absence of proper guidance," says Dr T Sringari, senior consultant orthopaedic for sports injuries at Gurgaon's Paras Hospital.
Fungi, bacteria and viruses also thrive in gyms that are not cleaned regularly and thoroughly. "Sweat and humidity in the shower rooms provide the ideal atmosphere for germs to multiply. One sick person can infect many within minutes in such an environment," says Dr RK Singal, director of internal medicine at BLK Super Speciality Hospital.
"Even more dangerous are protein supplements mindlessly recommended by trainers, which can damage the kidneys," adds Dr Atul Luthra, senior consultant at Fortis Memorial Research Institute (FMRI).
In Mumbai, a fight to keep fit
When Priti Nadkarni, 43, decided to get fit, she chose a lifetime membership in one of the biggest fitness centre chains in the country. "My younger sister had come down from the US for a visit, and I couldn't do a simple fitness task she demonstrated. That's when I realised I needed to get fit," she says.
A year ago, Nadkarni stopped going to that gym, despite having paid Rs 70,000 for her membership. "It got too crowded, and because of this, the trainers never had time to monitor or supervise."
The last straw for Nadkarni was when she noticed that pieces of equipment were being held together with adhesive tape. "I realised then that I was just wasting my time going there. I wasn't getting any healthier." Nadkarni now works out at a smaller fitness training centre where she gets more attention and supervision.
"Gyms that let hygiene, safety and training levels fall are everywhere. In some, they don't wipe down the machines after each person works out, in others they don't have servos installed so that treadmills don't stop abruptly if the power goes out," says Neeraj Mehta, director of The Growth for Fitness Instructors training institute. "They also employ untrained instructors, because they can pay them four or five times less."
Most gyms also have a single instructor handling more than 20 gym-goers, Mehta adds, while the ideal ratio is one instructor for every six people.
(Inputs for In Mumbai, a fight to keep fit- Apoorva Dutt)