Maybe you've been exercising for years. Or perhaps you are just starting a fitness program. Either way it's important to recognize that any movement regimen carries inherent risk. With the exception of the very lucky, most of at some point in our lives will get hurt. And there are some steps we can take to avoid injury, and to minimize the severity of injury if it does happen.
But we should never let the the risk of injury or the fear of getting hurt keep us on the couch.
Why? A sedentary lifestyle is linked to a nearly DOUBLED risk of early death which is far more risky than an injury. Sedentary lifestyles, and more simply too much sitting, is linked to heart-disease, Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, obesity, and depression.
Proper injury prevention becomes even more crucial as we age. Our vulnerability to injury increase as we get older very often because we have lost some of our former bone and muscle mass, but also because we don't heal as quickly. Proper injury prevention also promotes healthy aging because it empowers us to stay active as we age. Exercise is crucial for lifelong vitality, maintaining muscle mass and bone density, and keeping our metabolism boosted to offset weight gain often associated with getting older.
So, our best bet is to learn how to minimize the risk of injury and keep ourselves healthy so that if an injury does happen we can recover as quickly as possible.
Here are some simple tips:
Check In & Check Up
If you don't currently know your risk factors in your health, it's important to prioritize wellness visits especially if you are starting a new exercise regimen after many years off from movement.
Not only will you get a better understanding of your health, you also can become more aware of any contraindications (if any) that might lead you to choose one exercise over another, or modify when and where you need.
Start Where You Are (Not Where You Wish You Were)
It's normal to have an idea of what you want to accomplish in a workout. But if you are trying something for the first time, or the firs time in a long time, it is important to acknowledge and honor where you are at by challenging yourself but not pushing yourself too far.
There isn't a one-size-fits-all exercise regimen. So understanding where you are right now (not simply what your goal is for future you) will set you up for success and help prevent injury. Modify your exercise training program to accommodate your current cardiovascular, and musculoskeletal health as well as your lifestyle.
Know How Good Form Feels (Rather than Looks)
So often we want to feel successful right away, and the idea of modifying seems like we are failing, or at least we aren't working as hard as we could. However, developing good form in any exercise before increasing the intensity, load, or speed is important for healthy progression.
Focus on the feeling of a shape rather than the look of it. So often we go for a picture in a book or look at the mat next to us interpreting form visually instead of kinesthetically. Awakening your awareness to how an exercise feels in your body, before increasing the challenge sets you on a pathway to success.
If something feels wonky, advocate for yourself and ask a question to your teacher or trainer. Request guidance for not simply 'how to' do an exercise, but also where you should be feeling the work.
Get the right gear
Supportive, and breathable clothing, high quality equipment and proper shoes (if you are doing an exercise that requires shoes) can help you not only feel more comfortable but will also keep you safe.
The right clothing can help you ensure we don't overheat or chafe, and the right equipment such as a high quality yoga mat (rather than a plastic-based or PVC mat) makes a huge difference in our ability to be stable while we move! With the right equipment we are less like to endure like a slip or a fall.
It's totally normal to have something you enjoy the most - like a Cycling Class or Vinyasa Flow class. But too many spins on the bike, or too many minutes in downdog can add up to inflammation and potentially an overuse injury. Keep your joints happy and healthy by cross-training with different exercises, such as weight lifting, swimming, or jogging. And by adding something like simply walking on days you're not in the studio or gym (virtually or in-person).
Cross-training also is great for the brain. When we do something new it helps us enhance our coordination - which ultimately is another important component in staying safe.
Cold muscles are more injury-prone. A proper warm-up can improve blood flow to the working muscle and reduce stiffness, potentially lowering the risk of injury. Your warm-up should be active, such as dynamic stretches like Sun Salutations, marching in place or walking, or a combination of moves like basic squats and jumping jacks for five to 10 minutes.
It's also important to avoid long-held passive stretches before a workout. Long-held stretches create laxity in the muscles and can lead to tears if the muscle is then quickly used for a more powerful move in the same workout. Dynamic stretch in which you are moving a joint through it's range of motion rather than stopping and holding for a long period of time is more suitable for a warm-up.
Working out creates sweat, which means not only losing liquid but that also can potentially throw off our electrolyte balance that keeps our heart beating properly. If you are engaging in a very sweaty workout, hydrate before working out, and continue to take sips of water every 15 minutes or so. Then rehydrate properly after working out. If your workout is strenuous, in high heat, or continues well beyond 30-40 minutes you may also want to consider adding something like lemon to your water for electrolyte balance.
However do be mindful of the use of sports drinks. Very often in addition to salts and minerals, they also have high sugar content and are often designed with a very intense workout in mind, which means they aren't often a very healthy choice for the everyday workout.
Don't Skip Your Cool down
Finishing a workout abruptly is very difficult on the body. No only can it leave joints feeling stiff, and muscles locked up, it makes things difficult on the nervous system and the heart.
A proper cool down offers the body time to return to pre-exercise state gradually, lowering core body temperature, slowing down the heart rate, diverting blood flow back to processes like digestion, and also providing an opportunity for muscles to stretch and relax before moving on.
Learn to Distinguish Discomfort and Pain.
Fatigue and temporary muscle failure is not necessarily a bad thing in an exercise, and tolerance for discomfort will grow as exercise becomes more common in your weekly routine. However, while discomfort and challenge is expected you never want to work out to the point of pain. Learn to distinguish early on the difference in an uncomfortable and a painful sensation can help you identify when an exercise might not be right for you long before it becomes a problem.
Discomfort and uncomfortable sensations are normal. These are most often things that can be described as achey, which is a sensations that can be felt in the muscles when they are moved to fatigue.
But if an activity causes a sensations that are sharp, shooting, stabbing, electric, intensely hot, or causes you to sharply inhale and hold your breath - stop.
Get help immediately if you suddenly feel dizziness, shortness of breath, or chest pain.