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Preventing Injuries While Exercising

We all know that exercise is good for us. Staying fit can help improve our quality of life and keep us healthy. But many of us don’t know enough about how to prevent being injured while exercising, according to Steven Zonner, DO, a primary care sports medicine specialist with Washington Sports Medicine.

“As we approach the beginning of a new year, many people resolve to start out on a new exercise program, which is a good thing,” Dr. Zonner says. “Unfortunately, a lot of those people try to do too much, too soon and end up getting excessively sore or injured. Excessive soreness and injuries provide negative feedback about the value of exercise, rather than positive reinforcement. So I recommend that people who want to embark on an exercise regimen start slowly to reduce the risk of injury.”

Dr. Zonner notes that the American College of Sports Medicine recommends getting a minimum of 30 to 60 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, five days per week, or 20 to 60 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise three days per week. An example of vigorous-intensity exercise would be walking at a brisk pace to the point where you cannot hold a conversation.

“For beginners, though, that recommendation might be too much,” he cautions. “Instead of trying to exercise a lot and risk injury, why not at least get a little exercise? So you could start with brisk walking for 15 minutes, three times a week for three weeks. Then you can gradually build up to 30 minutes of brisk walking, five times a week. Of course, you should consult with your physician before starting any new exercise program to ensure your safety.”

Learn the Basics of Muscle Movements

Explaining that the muscles are the “locomotive” of the human body, Dr. Zonner encourages people to learn more about how our muscles work before starting a new exercise program. He believes that once you understand the mechanics of how your muscles work, you can learn to exercise in a way that builds greater strength and better control, while maintaining flexibility.

“In general, when you look at a model of the human anatomy, the muscles in the front part of the body are the ones that move us,” he says. “The muscles in the back of the body are the ones that control movement, and they are more prone to injury. Muscles work by shortening or contracting. Concentric contraction – which occurs when the muscles shorten – is the primary means of generating movement. Examples of concentric contraction would include lifting something with your arms, standing up or doing sit-ups by using the abdominal muscles. That’s the way our muscles prefer to function."

“The second type of muscle contraction is isometric, in which the muscle does not change length,” he continues. “An example of an isometric contraction would be carrying an object in front of you. The weight of the object would be pulling downward, but your hands and arms would be opposing that downward motion with equal force going upwards."

“Eccentric contraction is the third type of muscle activity, in which the muscle is lengthening as it contracts,” he concludes. “Examples of eccentric contraction would be holding a weight and letting it down slowly or hiking downhill. Muscles are not naturally oriented to function this way, and it’s when you are most likely to get injured. Remember, muscles prefer to shorten when they contract, but they can be trained to strengthen with they lengthen. For example, performing ‘lunges’ and moving a weight up and down slowly are ways to strengthen eccentric muscle contraction.”

When you start an exercise program, it is important to note that you are most likely to experience the most soreness on the second day after you exercise because your muscles are not used to those motions, according to Dr. Zonner.

“That’s why it is a good idea to exercise every other day,” he explains. “Don’t exercise one day and then wait a week. It is best to alternate between upper body and lower body exercises or between cardiovascular conditioning with weight training every other day.”

A Simple Piece of Equipment Can Improve Your Workout and Muscle Tone

Before you start a new exercise program, Dr. Zonner recommends purchasing a “foam roller” that can be found at any sporting goods store, many department stores or online.

“Every top athlete knows what a foam roller is, but it would be good for most people to learn how to use foam rollers, too,” he says. “Foam rollers are not expensive. They are about 6 inches in diameter, and vary in length from 2 to 4 feet. A 2-foot roller is fine for most people. The 4-foot roller is better for larger people or those who want to use more area. The rollers may get a bit more expensive as the contour of the surface changes – some have knobs or panels that apply different types of pressure to your muscles.”

Videos of how to use foam rollers can be found on the Internet’s YouTube site, but Dr. Zonner suggests that people who have not used foam rollers before might want to consult an athletic trainer, a physical therapist or a sports club trainer for assistance.

“Using a foam roller before and after you exercise will help stretch your muscles,” he explains. “It also helps build muscle tone, which is important to injury prevention. Good muscle tone is essentially the proper balance in muscle tension that results in the muscles feeling ‘supple’ when at rest. A supple muscle is one that is firm, but pliable – not rigid or knot-like.”

To develop muscle tone, Dr. Zonner recommends working all the muscle groups together, going though a full range of motion.

“For the best results, you need to combine cardiovascular fitness exercises with weight training,” Dr. Zonner notes. “For a beginning program, three days a week – such as Monday, Wednesday and Friday or Tuesday, Thursday and a weekend day – start out with using the roller for a minute to loosen up. Then do 10 minutes of cardiovascular exercise such as riding a stationary bike or walking briskly. Then use the foam roller again, followed by stretching. Then in the second or third week, you can add lifting hand-held weights while doing cardiovascular exercise. After that, you can add push-ups for arm strength, sit-ups for abdominal muscles and wall-sits for your thighs.

“Exercise should be a regular part of your life,” he adds. “The problem for many people is finding the time and being consistent. If you can start by exercising for 15 minutes, three times a week for three weeks, then you’ll recognize how much better you feel after exercise and be more inclined to increase the duration, intensity and frequency of your workouts. And by starting slowly, you’ll also be less likely to injure yourself.”