Deaths of fitness enthusiasts: Gyms cry for healthy govt intervention

Online Desk

‘You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.’ – Joan Didion.

Media houses have made it a routine to come out with videos of tragic deaths on their social media handles. Many of them captured by CCTV cameras reveal how life, as we know it, can end. These videos show death can come anytime, anywhere, be it at parties, weddings, or gyms. But unlike other instances, gym deaths show a pattern of unhealthy practices in fitness centres. 

Fitness is the in thing. Fitness centres flourish eyeing a market in the trend that has been catching up with the young and the old alike. Another side to the coin is the gym deaths. The recent gym deaths paint a terrifying picture of death hanging over us like clouds. 

Challenging the idea of fitness and instilling a deep fear about fitness, these deaths make one wonder if there is some gym death epidemic happening. 

TNIE Online talked to Thousand Lights DMK MLA Dr Ezhilan Naganathan and Prashanti Ganesh, founder and trainer of Strength System gym to understand the causes of such deaths and the necessary regulations that can be brought in to monitor the fitness centres.  

Talking about deaths due to steroids, diabetologist Dr Ezhilan said, “ I have treated people who suffered from infective endocarditis that was caused by steroids, especially people who are involved in bodybuilding. Not just steroids, gonadotropins, GnRH analogues, anabolic steroids and even adrenaline are used. We use adrenaline as a life-saving drug, here it is misused as an energy booster. This will lead to cardiac arrest and sudden deaths.” 

He also pointed out how tolerant and accepting we have become towards nutraceuticals. 

” Nutraceuticals is a big industry. Supplementaries like whey protein are prescribed unnecessarily, amino acids are consumed in bulk. Nutraceuticals have to be regulated too.” 

Gyms must have a medical supervision team, Ezhilan suggests. 

Steroids prove to be fatal in many cases, the recent death of the 25-year-old Chennai-based bodybuilder Akash shows. However, not all deaths shown in the shocking videos and reports are not caused by steroids, says Prashanti. 

“Generalising steroid use as the only reason for cardiac arrests as the only reason for such deaths by the media would be an irresponsible thing to do,” she says.

When asked if these deaths are happening in large numbers lately, she says that these deaths are actually being reported only lately, hence the large numbers.  

“Without looking at data for years and years together we cannot say one particular reason is causing these deaths. One trend that we notice post-pandemic is more people are participating in fitness,” she says. 

What could be the possible causes behind such deaths?

“Gyms not collecting enough data of their clients, not doing enough background checks on them, not talking to them about their medical history, not talking about their genetic predispositions can be the causes. That is, not doing a thorough enough job of data collection,” Prashanti says.  

“If all your family members have suffered a heart attack then it is possible that you have a predisposition to a heart attack,” Prashanti says. 

Lifestyle habits and genetic predispositions might have the tone of hindrances. Going by the cautionary health magazines/gurus/influencers, one might consider fitness to be Eden’s apple. Prashanti says otherwise. She says customizing the workouts for one’s health condition is a sufficient precautionary measure. The phrase health condition entails sleep cycle, stress, substance abuse and more. 

“We have to look at various factors like age, lifestyle, smoking habits, drinking habits, stress level, sleep routine – all of this needs to be analysed to see whether the person is ready to workout or not. And these things need to be continuously monitored. You will rarely find a coach who would ask how much sleep did you get? How has your stress been this week? Those are the things we ask every day. We have a system in place at Strength System where our members will come and tell us today we have not slept enough, and we would like to do easier exercises. Lack of background knowledge seems to be a bigger cause than the training itself,” Prashanti says. 

“Once a bodybuilder starts working out, along with taking supplements, it will take seven years to get the desired results. But, substances are used to get rapid results. It can be easily found out through blood screening that some of these substances are banned and a participant can be disqualified from competitions for the usage of such substances,” says Dr Ezhilan.  

Echoing a similar sentiment, Prashanti says that gym trainers do make mistakes. 

“Especially in India, there are no entry barriers to fitness. Anybody can become a coach. You can do a weekend certification and you can become a coach. You can become an entirely online coach without ever having worked with a person. You can go on making money for years from fitness without ever having worked with a human body,” she says.  

Saying that there is no legal requirement for a trainer to even be certified in India, Prashanti recalls an incident with the Chennai corporation about gym trainer certificates. 

“When we moved to a new gym, we had to get our gym license. The corporation required me to have a fitness certificate. But, there is no process to verify the credibility of the certificate, so even if I issued myself a fitness certificate they will accept it,” she says. 

“When it comes to gyms, there are absolutely no governmental regulations,” says Dr Ezhilan. 

Prashanti’s anecdote indicates the need for a governmental body to verify the credibility of gym trainers and to monitor the gym. How do we move about it? 

“It is a matter of intersectoral coordination. The health department must be involved, police regulation is needed and corporations – all these three need to come together to deal with this condition. There are health officers available but health officers do not know what substances are used,” Dr Ezhilan says.

Gym-goers can be cautious, they can read or seek knowledge on fitness, yes. But, the government regulating and monitoring gyms will prove to be effective. Let us call on the health department.  

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