SALT LAKE CITY — The Memorial Day holiday weekend comes with a sobering summer statistic: Emergency room visits at Alta View Hospital are about to double.
Teens and young adults come in with head, wrist, elbow and shoulder injuries from bike riding, jumping on trampolines, crashing on their ATVs and long boarding.
Fewer patients come in with injuries from activities like rock climbing and paragliding, according to Dr. George Vargyas, an emergency room physician. But as these activities grow, the trends seen in the less extreme activities could be at play in these sports. And there is a common culprit:
"People tend to kind of push the envelope in a realm that they're not comfortable in," Vargyas said. New sports should be learned in a gradient manner, to reduce risk of injury.
A lack of training and experience bring sports enthusiasts into the emergency room. But that doesn't mean you should stay at home on the couch; infrequent physical activity is the fourth leading cause of death worldwide, according to data from the World Health Organization.
Inactivity makes up 3.2 million deaths and 32.1 years of healthy life are lost per year. And those between ages 10 and 33 who are insufficiently active increase their likelihood of mortality by 20 or 30 percent as opposed to those who exercise for 30 minutes or more most days.
In other words, the risk of dying from an outdoor recreation activity could be much less than the risk associated with inactivity.
Importance of training
"As with any sport, whether its skiing or rock climbing or even riding a bike these days, it has to do with your training," Jeff Ambrose, a member of the Utah Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association, said.
He has been paragliding for three years year-round, and said he has never had any injuries or crashes. Before he could fly solo, he completed a proficiency program that included practice flights through the United States Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association.
Each person who completes the course receives a sticker on their flying helmet, an indication that they are certified. In order to fly at South Mountain, Utah's most popular hang gliding and paragliding spot, participants need to show this sticker.
"The culture in Utah is very much a culture of safety," Ambrose said.
Utah has about 300 local pilots and several hundred more come from around the world.
Even with the culture of safety, some participants take unnecessary risks.
Carl Dec, owner of Red River Adventures, said he is surprised by the numbers of people who begin rock climbing without completing a certified training course.
"There's no other sport that can kill you that people will go and have their friends teach them," he said. "It baffles me."
Rock climbing guides in Utah are not required to be certified, Dec said, which means those looking into the sport should be aware of their guide's climbing background.
He recommends climbing or canyoneering with a guide who has been certified through the American Mountain Guides Association. Trainees are not only required to come with years of climbing experience, Dec said, but undergo annual professional development training and re-certify every three years.
Dec, who has been climbing for 16 years, said rock climbing is safe because the terrain is predictable and the roping system is designed to have back up systems. Because rock climbing is a new sport, safety techniques are evolving, he said. So even if someone has been climbing for years and may know how to climb safely, they may be unaware of updated training that could further protect them.
He said he is surprised that so many people go rock climbing with friends who know what they are doing. It's a relatively new sport, and safety techniques are evolving. Even though someone may be safe, there may be a safer way to handle things.
Riley Cutter, director of the Utah Outdoor Products Cluster, agrees.
"The person that gets in trouble is not [from] those educated user groups," he said.
Keep on training
The more training and experience one has, he said, the greater their odds are of being safe. He recommends that rookies participate in their new sport with someone who has years of experience. Most of the outdoor recreation activities are not dangerous, but do contain an element of risk.
"That's why people do some of these sports. ... If there wasn't a risk to it, they wouldn't be doing it some of the time."
Many will take to rivers and lakes this weekend. But training is not just about learning how to swim. It includes understanding waterways and areas of potential trouble.
Swimming is among the more dangerous sports studied by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, making up 2.1 percent of outdoor activity-related injuries between 2004 and 2005.
John Paling, owner and founder of The Risk Communication Institute, said identifying true risks is a start to controlling those risks. He said risks should be considered not only by the number of people who are injured or killed, but also by the number able to enjoy the activity without harm or injury.
"If you only present people with the negative, they will be more afraid than if you presented them with them with the positive," he said.
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