Sure, you can get injured from exercise. But the long-term risks of not working out are higher because being sedentary can lead to chronic diseases, says Lynn Millar, PT, Ph.D., FACSM, chair of the Department of Physical Therapy at Winston-Salem State University. So get moving—just heed the following tips from experts to minimize your chance of injury.
1. Honestly assess what your body can—and cannot—do. “Be realistic about your capabilities and say ‘no’ to things you know you shouldn’t be doing,” says Rachel Straub, MS, CSCS, an exercise physiologist, certified strength and conditioning specialist, and co-author of “Weight Training Without Injury” (Regalis Publishing, April 2016). So if you’re not in excellent shape, choose less-taxing forms of exercise, like jogging or swimming, rather than high-intensity interval training, CrossFit and running. Avoid CrossFit, she urges, unless you can do the following: run a mile plus, stand on one foot for at least 30 seconds with your eyes closed, and perform a bilateral squat, single-leg step-down and floor push-ups.
2. Slowly increase the difficulty. Whichever exercises you choose, introduce them gradually, says Justin Price, corrective exercise specialist and creator of The BioMechanics Method. As you get in better shape, increase the difficulty level little by little, Straub adds. As an example, begin squatting without weight, then use light weights and progressively up the load.
3. Don’t overdo it. “If we look at the risk of injury, it’s actually a U-shaped curve,” Millar says. “If we’re not active at all and then exercise, there’s a higher risk of injury. As you train, your risk goes down—if you’re following the rules. But if you go to extremes, then your risk of injury goes back up.” Even walking can be overdone, she continues. For instance, if you walk 3 miles a day and immediately progress to 10, you could get hurt.
4. Make sure your regimen is balanced. In your overall exercise plan, include some cardio, some strength training, and some balance and flexibility modalities, Millar says. So in a typical week, for instance, you might jog or speed-walk five days, lift weights two or three days, and do yoga or Pilates two or three days. Also, intersperse lighter and more demanding days, she continues, to give your body a chance to recuperate. For instance, swim after a day of HIIT or heavy weightlifting.
5. Warm up and cool down. Before exercising, warm up to slowly increase your heart rate and prime the muscles for movement, Millar says. Try foam rolling and dynamic stretching (such as shoulder rolls before a swim), she suggests. Then do some light or moderate cardio. For instance, ride a recumbent bike for 10 minutes before weightlifting or jog before running. Afterward, cool down with less-demanding activities to slow your heart rate, she continues. Specifically, try foam rolling again or doing some static stretches, like straightening out your legs and trying to touch your toes.
6. Get help when starting a new exercise. If beginning a new form of exercise, such as weightlifting, see a trainer to learn the proper form, Millar suggests. That said, always listen to your body. “If something doesn’t feel right, stop doing it,” Straub says. “You know your body better than anyone, so please don’t be influenced by someone trying to push you, no matter what their credentials.”
7. Always aim for proper form. You can injure yourself doing any type of exercise if your form is bad, Straub says. While guidelines differ for each activity, it’s helpful to be aware of the proper biomechanics for some common moves. For instance, when squatting, don’t place your feet too close together, lean too far forward or allow your knees to move too far forward relative to your trunk, she continues. When planking, avoid arching your lower back. If that’s too difficult, try using an elevated surface. With rows, don’t round your back and cock your head back, and with shoulder presses, make sure your elbows stay in front of your shoulders.
8. Be aware of the most common injuries. Across the board, the shoulders, knees and lower back tend to get injured the most from exercise, the experts agree, with hip and ankle issues also prevalent. That said, basketball particularly taxes the knees; swimming the shoulders; running the ankles, knees and hips; and tennis the knees, ankles and lower back, Millar says. Also, know that CrossFit and running have high injury rates. Millar and Straub cite one study that estimates the CrossFit injury rate at a whopping 73.5 percent, as well as a 2015 study on running that pegged injury rates at 17.8 percent for novices and 7.7 percent for recreational runners.
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