Wellness Wednesday: Are You Putting Yourself At Risk?

Did you ever get hurt doing an exercise you thought would help or doing an exercise that was the latest, coolest exercise everyone else was doing? Did you ever get hurt doing an exercise that someone told you would help you because it worked wonders for them? Or do you just not exercise for fear of hurting yourself – instead of helping yourself?

For 27 years as a physical therapist, my office has constantly been filled with patients wondering how things went wrong doing their exercise routines. I’ve helped many people from professional athletes to 102 year old housewives return to their previous function by following one simple principle: understand the risk, as well as the benefits, of each exercise in your routine.

It’s so simple that most people – even physical therapists, personal trainers, and exercise instructors – miss it. Each exercise carries a risk as well as a benefit. You must first establish your goals so you are able to understand how much risk you are willing to take to achieve them. For most people, the primary goal should be: strive to stay as healthy as you can be every day so you can actively pursue the things that make you happy as long as you live.

So you may be asking yourself, “How do I put this principle to work for me?” Begin by establishing your realistic goals and a time frame in which you wish to achieve them.

For example: you may be a 30-40-year-old mother who needs strength to pick up full grocery bags and young children; flexibility to avoid pain from the strains of daily activity; and endurance to keep up with the constant multi-tasking to hold it all together. With no time to get to the gym, you try some exercise tapes with moderate success but you haven’t set out specific goals or looked at the risks of each exercise. Then you decide to try increasing to the higher level tapes to fit into “that dress” for your reunion which is only two weeks away. But after doing the higher level exercises, you end up in physical therapy with a low back strain because you didn’t follow the necessary interim steps to get to that level. You increased the risk for the chance at a minimal benefit. You also shortened the time frame to achieve it. When increasing the difficulty of an existing program, you must give yourself enough time to introduce new exercises, add repetitions, or increase resistance. It’s best to add one or two new changes at a time. Once you’ve done it a few times, then add another until you get where you want to be safely without incurring any injury.

Or maybe this sounds familiar…you are a 60-year-old executive who is fully aware that regular exercise is vitally important to staying on top of your game mentally and physically so you can stay ahead of the competition. You’re working out at home to save time, but the only problem is you are still using exercise principles you learned back in the high school weight room: maximum sets of 10-12 reps with the most weight you can handle until maximum fatigue on the last rep; aerobic activity more for sprinting than endurance; abdominal exercises with unnecessary risk (as well as with questionable positioning); and stretching is more of an afterthought – if done at all. With this program you are at high risk of spending more time rehabilitating an injury than being a step ahead of the competition.

Try this to keep the edge without the risk. Set your goals:

Stay alert and responsive.
Have energy for long workdays (and nights when necessary).
Be strong and fit enough for recreational sports/meetings on the tennis court or golf course.
Be active and attractive to your spouse or partner for those long-awaited vacations to Italy or wherever.

To meet all of these goals without spending unnecessary time with doctors and physical therapists rehabbing pain from back or shoulder injuries, consider these principles:

Increase endurance to 45-60 minutes of less intense activity (i.e. walking or other low-impact aerobic circuit instead of 20-25 minutes running). You will decrease your risk of joint wear and tear while increasing your ability to remain sharp and alert for long work days and late meetings.

Cut your resistance for strengthening exercises by 1/3-1/2 of your current load and increase reps to 18-20. Also pay attention to safe body mechanics. This will keep you plenty strong enough for meetings at the 19th hole while vastly decreasing your risk of a muscle strain or torn tendon.

Make sure you stretch every day (30 sec. holds) in a relaxed stable position to avoid aches/pains from myofascial trigger points that may keep you from living life to the fullest with those you love.

Add daily core/abdominal strengthening which are a must to protect your spine and maintain a confident posture. No weights are needed. The function of the abdominal muscles is to protect the spine all day and not to perform a few maximum efforts. Try Pilates style exercises. Always start at the first level no matter how strong you think you are. It’s better to move up levels quickly than have to start over after an injury because you skipped levels.

The principles listed above will apply to most people trying to be the healthiest they can be. But what if you are a competitive athlete – college, professional, or nationally ranked amateur at any age (not weekend warriors who should follow the previous scenario with the executive). You may be willing to take more of a risk to achieve higher rankings, obtain scholarships, etc. You should seek professional advice from someone who knows the sport and also has the education and experience to help you achieve the highest level you are capable of safely reaching.

Remember, just because an exercise is popular, trendy, looks cool, or uses the latest fancy equipment doesn’t mean it helps you achieve your goals safely. You should strive to be the healthiest you can be today and prepare to be the healthiest you can be tomorrow. Establishing clear goals and assessing the risk as well as the benefit of each individual exercise will ensure that you can live the most active, pain-free fulfilling life possible. You’ll be able to do all the things you desire while spending time with the people you love. Be smart and you won’t wind up in my physical therapy office.

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