Inmate weightlifting: Healthy or hazardous?

Rethinking the ‘gym’ concept of healthy exercise can open up avenues for low-risk and low-expense options


As a correctional nurse, I advocate healthy living practices for inmates. Research supports the many health benefits of both cardiovascular (aerobic) and resistance (strength-training) exercise. These benefits to the inmate also improve the management and social climate of a correctional facility.

Exercise Benefits
•    Reduces stress and improved attitude
•    Lower risk of heart disease and diabetes
•    Improved flexibility and balance, reducing fall injury potential
•    Reduce chronic musculoskeletal pain

A large percent of our population return to the community. Healthy habits can reduce chronic and infectious diseases and, therefore, improve public health in our country. These days, most Americans equate exercise with going to a gym, so it is not surprising that weight-lifting in prisons is a focus of ‘healthy’ concern.

Exercise, including weight lifting, can be over used and result in life-threatening conditions such as rhabdomyolysis, which I talk about in an earlier column. In addition, incorrect use of equipment can lead to injury and incur medical costs. Exercise equipment can be used as weapons or to hide contraband. Indeed, the use of steroids and excessive weight lifting can bulk up inmates, causing a safety concern for officers and other inmates. The Zimmer Amendment, enacted in the mid-90’s along with some high profile deaths from the use of exercise equipment-based weapons, has led to the elimination of weight-lifting equipment in many correctional facilities.

Effective cardiovascular and resistance exercise, however, can be accomplished without the use of weight-lifting equipment. Rethinking the ‘gym’ concept of healthy exercise can open up avenues for low-risk and low-expense options.

Safer Exercise Options
•    Establish a walking ‘track’ in an exercise yard that is measured to allow calculation of miles walked.
•    Provide posters or handouts of boot-camp style cardiovascular exercise routines such as jumping jacks, ropeless rope jumping, and high- step marching in place.
•    Classes or instruction on yoga moves for balance and flexibility.
•    Body weight strength training such as push-ups, sit-ups, squats, and dips can be demonstrated and encouraged by recreational and health care staff

Working together, officers and health care staff can encourage safe and healthy physical exercise that can be good for all concerned. How are you managing recreation and physical activity in your setting? Share your ideas in the comments section of this post.

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