There are numerous benefits to exercise, but what’s often not mentioned in all the pro-exercise publicity, is that there are also risks involved, chiefly the risk of injury.
Many people, despite their best intentions to get healthier and feel better, actually end up unhealthier and feeling worse after injuring themselves pursuing their fitness goals.
Recently, I polled my personal Facebook account for stories of injury whilst exercising.
It didn’t take too long for my notifications to start pinging like crazy. Here are some of the responses I got:
went for a 7-8km run then stupidly tried to do a back session whilst fatigued. deadlifting with no energy then gave me a slipped disc and a very shitty year ahead.
it still niggles. its probably at about 85%. back in the gym but i never lift at more than about 60%. also trying footy again this year but am a little worried about getting a big bump. long car trips are also a horrible experience if i dont have a rolled uo towel to place on my lower back.
I was doing weight training and now my knees are stuffed!
Sore left glute early on in hockey season. Hockey is a right handed game (seriously) and a lot of players tend to develop niggles on the left side.
Buggered knee from years of over exertion bad form and bad knees
Yes many times mainly due to my strength being far superior than my mobility and flexibility at the particular time.
High volume squats. Poor form with my wrist. – sprain which eventually led to avascular necrosis of the lunate.
Heavy tb deadlift pb. Not enough food tat day and lifted too heavy given a lack of conditioning (hadn’t lifted heavy in 3 months) back injury – 6 months.
Back is fully recovered, wrist is permanently injured.
Not all injuries are created equally, however, and there were many stories involving accidents and trauma which I haven’t shared. Whilst little can be done to eliminate accidents, setting yourself up to exercise as safely as possible can greatly reduce your risk of injuries like the ones described above.
In my years of practice, and especially now being an osteopath based in a gym, along with almost a decade of personal training experience , I’ve learnt a few things about why people get injured exercising. A lot of the time, there is the perfect storm of preventable factors that combine to result in injury.
With that in mind, I’ve listed 7 ways to prevent injuries whilst exercising:
1. Make sure you want to exercise in the first place
Most people don’t think things through properly before they start.
When it comes to exercise, before you start, you have to know why.
Without a good reason to exercise, you won’t put in the effort to do things properly, which is a sure-fire route to getting injured, or you will, but the effort will be such a stress that it negatively impacts other aspects of your life.
Deciding to exercise will either have a positive or negative motivation behind it.
Positive: I want to be healthy and feel strong so that I can live a full life.
Negative: I don’t want to end up weak and frail and isolated in a nursing home.
Neither is right or wrong, but from experience, negative motivation only lasts so long. If it gets you going, great, but be aware that those that stick to exercise for life tend to have positive motivations for doing so. Don’t worry though, chances are you’re reasons for starting will be different to your reasons for sicking to it.
Exercise is fantastic, most people should be engaging in some form, but it is not essential to exercise to be healthy.
So if you chose to do so, know your reasons.
2. Learn to move well
This was almost going to be number 1, because, even if you don’t “exercise”, chances are you move.
Learning to move well is both simple and complex at the same time.
The knowledge behind the process is actually quite complex, but what you have to do is relatively simple. The key is to seek out an expert who has the complex knowledge but can provide you with simple, actionable steps to get you to move well.
Whether it’s an osteopath, a personal trainer or both, the initial investment in learning to move well will pay you dividends for life.
3. Know your weaknesses (and address them)
We all have strengths and weaknesses. Naturally, we gravitate towards our strengths.
Big strong people tend to like to lift heavy things. Tall and lean people tend to like to run, row or ride.
Of course, these are just generalisations, but the point is, if we only ever focus on our strengths, chances are we will limit our potential achievements and increase our risk of injury, as our bodies become ever more efficient at compensating until they can no longer.
Identifying your weaknesses is a tough thing to do. Most of us a terrible at looking at ourselves objectively. This is where it pays to hire a professional to tell you what you need to work on.
Not only will address your weaknesses make you more resilient, but your biggest fitness gains will come from improving your limiting factors.
4. Progress intelligently
One of the biggest predictors of injury is the ratio of acute to chronic training volume.
What the heck does that mean?
It means when you see a big increase in the amount of work done in the short term, relative to the amount of work done in the long term, then injury is more likely.
Put another way, you have to build up your tolerance to large training loads.
That means starting well within your capabilities and progressing gradually.
The 10% rule – not increasing total training volume by more than 10% per week – is a good general guideline to go by.
Start with an assessment to work out your current abilities, and then progress gradually, using different means of progression. Intensity, volume, frequency, rest, density and even activity/exercise selection are all variables that can be manipulated to provide progressions.
You should have certain indicators that help you identify when you are ready to progress – whether they are qualitative (rating of perceived exertion (RPE) scales) or quantitative (biofeedback like heart rate or power output). (1)
This will prevent your ego getting in the way and causing you to make to big of a jump too soon, which is a massive cause of injury.
5. Prioritise recovery
Everyone loves to train hard, not many people like to put in the effort to recover well. However, your ability to exercise is determined by your ability to recover.
Recovering means more than time off training. It means actively taking steps to relax and regenerate both your body and mind.
That means your nutrition and sleep must be on point, but also, your workload and personal life must be taken into consideration of your exercise load.
There are a few ways you can monitor you recovery.
Old school: keep a journal, track your mood and a RPE for each session. If your RPE is going up and your mood is going down, it’s a good sign you’re not recovering enough.
New school: Heart rate variability (HRV) apps. HRV is a way to measure your autonomic nervous system activity, which is a good marker of how stressed you are. You can download various free apps which will sync up with a chest heart rate monitor, whilst at least one can use your smart phone’s camera to measure your heart rate via your finger tip.
The best approach, which is also the most effort, is to combine a journal, RPE scale and HRV data. Initially, it won’t tell you much, but over a longer period of time, you’ll gain valuable insight to your physical and mental state, which will allow you to know when to push hard and when to back off.
Even if you don’t monitor your recovery status, simply allocating time for active recovery techniques is doing better than 95% of people.
6. Balance your training over time
Depending on your individual goals and personal characteristics, you will train in a way which builds particular physical qualities.
However, it is important for health and longevity to build all physical qualities to some degree – flexibility, mobility, power, strength and endurance.
Even if you are a highly specialised athlete, outside of your sport, all training is general in nature, and thus you should aim to improve a range of general physical qualities to minimise injury and maximise performance. If your sport is “the game of life”, then this only adds to the need to exercise a broad range of attributes.
Balance is more than being well rounded; you want balance between periods of hard training and periods of consolidation, which goes back to prioritising recovery.
7. Don’t chase fatigue
Anyone can make you TIRED. It takes a skilled professional to make you BETTER.
One of the biggest mistakes people make when exercising, whatever their motivation for doing so, is “chasing fatigue”.
This is a problem, because whilst how we feel on any given day is important, it gives us no insight into whether we are actually improving.
Additionally, chasing fatigue often results in compromising your movement in order to complete a given task, which is risky business to say the least.
This occurs because people associate with certain feelings, and a common association, often perpetuated by the mainstream media is that a workout has to be hard to be effective.
Now, of course, some exercise sessions will be tiring, that’s completely okay, but fatigue should be a by product of exercise, not a goal in and of itself.
You don’t always have to improve from session to session, or even in a straight line (pro tip: neither happen in the real world anyway), but, over a long enough period of time, you should improve at what you are doing.
The best way to know this is to keep a training journal, but if that’s too tedious, having “milestones” throughout the year where you test yourself are a good way to keep track on a macro scale.
8. (BONUS) Fit the exercise to your body, not your body to the exercise
Not everyone is built to run long distances or squat heavy weights with a barbell.
This goes back to knowing your weaknesses (and strengths), but you should choose activities and techniques that suit your body type and abilities.
If you like to run, that’s fine, but maybe marathons on roads don’t agree with your body, so instead, you try shorter distances or trail running.
Likewise, if the gym is your thing, build your program around exercises that suit your body, not what some article online says is the best “butt builder”.
Injuries can still happen, despite your best intentions, but there are lots of things you can do to minimise your risk, the above list covers 7 very important elements to consider.
A lot of them have overlap – doing too much too soon and not getting enough rest – and are generally brought about by not knowing any better (forgiveable) or getting emotional/letting your ego guide your decisions (not-so forgiveable).
Exercising should be enjoyable, not a chore, and this list isn’t meant to take the fun out of exercise, but rather, help keep you injury free so that you can continue to exercise in a way that you enjoy.
This blog post was written by Dr Nick Efthimiou (Osteopath), founder of Integrative Osteopathy.
This blog post is meant as an educational tool only. It is not a replacement for medical advice from a qualified and registered health professional.
(1) To read about a simple, easy to use RPE scale, as used by the Australian Institute of Sport, read this.
(2) I’ve only used EliteHRV, but the other two come highly recommended from other professionals I trust.