As millions of Americans raise their glasses on Dec. 31, many will toast to a new beginning and the ways they plan to reinvent themselves in the new year.
Improving personal health and fitness is a mainstay among resolutions people make each year -- evidenced by a customer poll by time management firm Franklin Covey showing that losing weight and exercising were among the top three resolutions for 2008 and 2009.
But emergency physicians and fitness experts caution that health and fitness goals must be approached correctly. Otherwise, a new fitness regimen could land a newbie in the emergency room.
"We see it throughout the year, and certainly at the beginning of the year," said Dr. Corey Slovis, professor and chairman of emergency medicine at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, who noted that the first two days of January tend to be particularly busy days at his center for exercise-related injury. "Years of doing nothing can push you to do something really bad."
The problem with diving into a new fitness regimen seems to be that people do not know their own fitness levels. Without a proper assessment from a physician or a trainer, a gym-rat wannabe could burn himself or herself out within a few days of starting intense workouts.
"I do see a lot of people who tend to be pretty overzealous at the new year," said Jan Schmidt, director of the Kirmayer fitness center at the University of Kansas Medical Center. "You can tell they are just hammering away at themselves."
In addition, following six weeks of holiday festivities and the accompanying poundage with a heavy dose of running or weight lifting could be demoralizing, if not outright dangerous.
"People attack it and think they're going to get back their lost vigor and vitality in a few days," said Dr. Linn Goldberg, professor of medicine and head of the Division of Health Promotion and Sports Medicine at Oregon Health and Sciences University. "In reality, it takes six weeks to enhance your aerobic capacity."
Slovis said some of the more common exercise-related injuries seen in the beginning of the year are musculoskeletal -- including pulled muscles, tendons and pain in the shoulders, legs and feet from running too hard and long or lifting heavy weights. Dehydration, hyperventilation and tachycardia, or rapid heartbeat, can also be a problem.
But other experts are not seeing the same trend. Dr. Paul Pepe, professor and chair of emergency medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, noted that while there may be an intuitive bump in exercise-related injuries in the beginning of the year, they may be difficult to track because they are not as noticeable as other annual trends, such as burns during the holidays, firecracker injuries around the Fourth of July or carbon monoxide poisonings in the fall from bad heating systems.
While exercise-related injuries are not always serious enough to send patients to the emergency room, they can force a new fitness freak to take a few days off, which can throw a wrench into the fitness plan.
"If they're in a lot of pain, they're not going to want to do that again," Goldberg said. "[Exercise] needs to be done very carefully ... so they are disinhibited from coming back to the gym again."