July 31, 2012 at 8:20 AM ET
Zumba may be a great way to "party yourself into shape," but according to a number of doctors, the wildly popular dance-fitness program may also be a good way to party yourself into pain.
"I'm seeing a number of injuries," says Dr. Orly Avitzur, a neurologist and Consumer Reports medical adviser who recently wrote that she's seen an uptick in Zumba-related injuries, which can range from ankle sprains, shin splints, heel spurs and plantar fasciitis to hip bursitis, muscle strains and knee problems requiring surgery.
"There's so much side-to-side movement that you really need to synchronize your hips, your knees, your feet and your ankles so they're going in the same direction," says the neurologist. "If you move in one direction and the joint doesn't go with you in that direction, it's a setup for injury."
Dr. Connie Young, a 54-year-old ob/gyn from Briarcliff Manor, New York, says she took a couple of Zumba classes two months ago, thinking it would be good cross-training for her running, biking and weightlifting.
"I was a novice and at the end of the second class, I had a twinge in my lower back," she says. "Two days later, I was walking around like a duck."
Young, who suffered a back strain, says she's fine now, but recalls that before her first class, she heard other students talking about injuries.
"The class was primarily middle-aged women like myself and it seemed like everybody in the class had suffered some kind of injury due to Zumba," she says.
An email survey issued by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons for this post got similar responses from doctors, who say they're regularly seeing Zumba students for ankle sprains, ankle fractures, torn meniscus, overuse injuries and more.
"I'd say we get at least one to two Zumba-related injuries a week," says Dr. Stephanie Siegrist, an orthopedic surgeon from Rochester, New York. "Zumba in and of itself is not a bad thing. Everybody who's tried it loves it and wants to go back and we certainly encourage that in our patients. But several times a week. I tell patients, 'We get a lot of business from Zumba.'"
Avitzur, who takes Zumba three or four times a week, says those new to the high intensity dance-fitness class are particularly susceptible.
"Newbies are at risk because it's a fitness of last resort," she says. "I think a lot of people who are older will try it even if they hate exercise because their friends tell them how much fun it is. And often those people are out of shape and they try to keep up with the class when they haven't prepared for that."
But newbies aren't the only ones getting hurt.
Freyda Schneider, a 45-year-old children's theatre producer who'd taken Zumba classes all last summer, suffered a meniscus tear, a common knee joint injury, during a Zumba class this May and ended up having to have surgery.
"I noticed during class that I was in a little bit of pain but kept going," she says. "I was so busy dancing and sweating, I didn't pay attention. Later in the day, I realized I should have stopped."
Avitzur says wearing the right shoes and avoiding the wrong floors, such as carpeting or hard tile, will help you avoid Zumba injuries.
"Women slip on any sneaker that they think will match their outfit and that's not a good idea," she says. "I use dance shoes because they pivot really easily and there's a lot of pivoting in Zumba."
Lane McCormick, a 23-year-old media account manager and part-time fitness instructor from Seattle says she's never seen or heard of a Zumba injury in any of the classes she's taken or taught, however, she does agree with Avitzur about the importance of good shoes.
"When I first started taking Zumba, I wore my running shoes and when turning or pivoting while in running shoes -- or any shoes with treads -- you can feel like your feet are stuck to the floor," she says. "If you push too hard, I can definitely see how injuries could occur."
Crowded classes are equally problematic, says Avitzur.
"I've been in classes that are way too congested and people run into each other or hit each other with a flailing arm or leg," says Avitzur. "I think those are unsafe. I'll walk out of a class if it's too congested."
Also key: working with an experienced instructor who offers a choice of high intensity or low-impact moves.
Dave Cook, an ER physician from Charleston, South Carolina, says he's seen four or five people for injuries stemming from Zumba or video exercise programs like Insanity or P90X in the last six months.
"Any time you have a new sports exercise craze you tend to see more injuries," he says of the uptick in injuries. "People have a clear understanding of basic forms of exercise, but with some of these new forms, you don't necessarily see that."
Still, the Latin-inspired dance-fitness class has a fiercely loyal following, even among the dancing wounded.
"I did Zumba for a summer at a different location and was never injured," says Schneider, who just got off her crutches following surgery. "It was a good, fun energetic workout. Despite the fact I was injured during class, I am not anti-Zumba."