Although exercise supports and helps maintain long-term health, inexperience and misinformation can lead to negative experiences and/or injuries that reduce the will to do it regularly. Following basic principles can help avoid injury, make exercise more enjoyable, and keep your health goals on track. Here are five areas where some extra attention can save a large amount of grief.
Choose a reasonable pace
The enthusiasm that helps you start an exercise routine can also cause you to do too much, too fast. Overdoing it can lead to injury, making it more likely you’ll quit. Avoid this by upping your routine gradually, especially if you’re starting from zero. Make small changes for a whole week (or more) at a time.
When you’re ready to expand your workout, add days per week before increasing the daily duration or intensity to spread out the load. Make small changes that suit the type of exercise, as well as your fitness level and goals. As you implement your plan, listen to your body and make day-to-day adjustments as needed, especially if you feel like you pushed too far. It’s okay to do less than you planned when your body tells you it’s too much. Achieving fitness takes time, so be patient with yourself and your body and work toward gradual, lasting change.
“Leg day” isn’t just for serious athletes. The concept of switching the part of the body or type of exercise from day to day or week to week is good for keeping things interesting, keeping your body challenged, and giving your body a break between sessions.
Recovery, an important part of healthy exercise, is the process that makes you more fit. Prevent overuse injuries by giving heavily worked parts of your body a chance to recover before they are challenged again. Especially when you start out, if you find you are experiencing fatigue or soreness the next day, then reduce the intensity or duration of the next workout, switch to a different type of exercise, or even take a day off between workouts. One common pattern is to alternate between aerobic and weight training sessions.
Strengthen your core
A strong core provides a strong base for your whole body and all types of exercise. Although your torso might seem sturdy, it is largely dependent on the muscles in your belly and back for structure. Weak core muscles can lead to low back pain and increase your chance of injury.3 There are many exercises, including crunches and planks, that are good ways to strengthen your core. Work these into your exercise routine, especially early on.
Focus on safety
After lack of time, getting hurt is the most common reason for quitting regular exercise. Learning how to properly do the exercises you prefer helps prevent injury. Although working with a professional trainer is a great strategy for ensuring you are exercising correctly, that isn’t an option for everyone. Here are nine tips to keep in mind with any type of exercise:
- Warm up and cool down. Work your way up to full intensity over the first several minutes and work back down gradually over the last few minutes of exercise. This gives your body time to safely shift into and out of exercise mode.
- Stretch gently after your muscles are warmed up. Avoid bouncing or straining when you stretch. Instead, relax into the stretch with each exhale to gradually deepen the stretch a bit at a time.
- Protect your neck by keeping it in line with your spine for most exercises. Avoid craning your neck forward or arching it back unless the exercise specifically calls for it.
- Protect your low back by tensing the muscles in your core (especially your belly) during exercise. This provides stability for your low back by maintaining proper alignment and preventing excessive arching, which places extra strain on the small bones and postural muscles and leads to pain or injury.
- Avoid twisting at the knees. The knee is well suited to forward and back motions, but it has little protection or strength to withstand twisting motions. Especially when doing dynamic activities like sports or aerobics, or when carrying a load, be conscious of your knees. Twist at your feet or waist. It’s also a good idea to keep your knees above your ankles (as opposed to forward of your ankles) in squat and lunge type positions unless the exercise specifically calls for it.
- Avoid locking your joints, especially when doing power moves or long-holding stretches, unless the exercise specifically calls for it. A portion of joint stability is provided by activating the muscles that cross the joint. When the joint is allowed to rest in a locked extreme, the muscles around it might not provide adequate tension to protect the joint. In some cases, a locked joint can also negatively impact blood flow.
- Breathe properly. Avoid holding your breath while exercising. Keep your breath regular and deep. One trick is to count with each inhale and exhale (for example, inhale 1, 2, 3, 4, exhale 1, 2, 3, 4) to create a cadence to your breath that matches the cadence of your exercise. Exhale with heavy exertion like lifting weights or jumping.
- Discomfort is normal, but pain is a warning. If you begin to feel pain during exercise, then change or stop that activity. Allow time for your body to recover before challenging the painful area again. You might need to switch to a different exercise, if one is available, or work on strengthening supporting muscles before doing that activity again.
- Evaluate your trainer. There are many online and in-person resources for exercise ideas and programs to follow. If you opt to follow a leader, then keep this safety measure in mind: if the trainer doesn’t help you understand how to follow along safely and adapt to your skill level or preferred intensity, then it’s a good sign to find another resource.
Although there are plenty of ways to exercise for free, there are several areas where an expenditure can improve your comfort and safety.
- Wear good shoes. Your feet are the foundation of most exercises and are the basis of good total-body alignment. A pair of well-fit shoes that support your feet and don’t slide around provide shock-absorption for impact activities, as well as good traction to prevent slips and falls.
- Wear appropriate clothing. Workout wear impacts safety as well as comfort. It doesn’t need to be fancy, only well suited to the activity you are doing. Choose breathable fabrics without too much cotton (which tends to hold sweat and therefore heat), and outfits that fit well (not baggy or too tight) to facilitate movement and reduce the risk of getting caught in/on equipment. If you will be outdoors, then dress for about 10OF warmer than the weather so you don’t overheat as you warm up. If you wear layers, then be sure to have a plan for keeping track of items you take off. You might also find it helpful to remove jewelry and accessories when exercising.
- Learn about specialized gear that enhances safety and comfort. For example, depending on the type of exercise, women should invest in a good sports bra and men should evaluate whether an athletic cup/supporter is warranted. Other equipment, like padded bike shorts, gloves, helmets, and eye protection might be relevant to your preferred sport or exercise. Learn what equipment is important versus optional and how to properly select it for your needs.
Keep these concepts in mind as you plan your exercise routine to keep exercise fun and safe. And, of course, remember to hydrate!
October 21, 2020 • Sheena Smith, MS, MA
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- Huxel-Bliven K, Anderson B. Core stability training for injury prevention. Sports Health 2013;5(6):514-522. doi:10.1177/1941738113481200