Everyone knows that exercising is good for your health. It lowers blood pressure, strengthens the heart and reduces stress. But if you don’t take care of your body, it can lead to torn muscles, bad knees or worse.
Below, experts share their tips on working out without burning out. And they offer 15 tips on ways to prevent injuries from workouts.
1. Get checked out
If you haven’t exercised in a while or are planning to ramp up your routine, it’s a good idea to get evaluated by a doctor first. Medical conditions, such as obesity or heart problems, can limit the activities that are right for your body.
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Dr. Carlos Zamora, who directs the sports cardiology clinic at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach, recommends that anyone who has a family history of heart disease or is planning to get significantly more active come in for a screening. He also urges serious athletes of any age to get checked.
In young athletes, tests can pick up congenital heart conditions and prevent potentially fatal collapses in the field. In older men, Zamora looks for signs of coronary disease in order to prevent heart attacks during strenuous activity. Doctors can recommend a safe level of exercise or medication if needed.
2. Gear up
Getting the right equipment and maintaining its condition prevents injuries, says Dr. Harlan Selesnick, an orthopedic surgeon at Baptist Hospital. He’s been the team physician for the Miami Heat for over 25 years.
Tennis players should ensure proper tension in their strings. Skiers should adjust bindings for their weight. Runners should make sure their shoes fit and support their foot structure — the wrong pair can cause tendonitis.
“If you wait until the tread is worn down on the shoe, it’s probably lost shock absorption 50 percent of the time ago,” Selesnick says.
3. Know what you’re doing
Lifting weights or playing sports without knowing the proper technique can cause shoulder injuries and muscle damage. James Buchanan, a physical therapist at Jackson Memorial Hospital, recommends getting help from a trainer, instructor or coach if you’re starting out.
“If you’re new to a gym, you might be a little intimidated. If you’re not comfortable with something, definitely utilize someone who knows what they’re doing for just a couple sessions to set you on the right track,” he says.
Buchanan also suggests joining a running group, going to a free consultation with a physical therapist or chiropractor, or attending a training session at a local running shoe store.
4. Warm up and cool down
When you squeeze a workout into a busy schedule, stretching and warming up can feel like a waste of time. But Buchanan calls it “101 for being injury-proof.”
Buchanan, who runs marathons himself, starts with a 10-minute warm-up, such as brisk walking or squats. At the end of his run, he slows down gradually and then stretches to keep muscles flexible and prevent soreness.
5. Mix it up
Most sports injuries stem from overusing muscles. Unlike accidents, these are preventable.
One way to avoid overuse is to switch up your routine. Adding variety can work different muscle groups, allowing others to heal. A mix of strength and endurance training is also key.
Manny Zuccarelli, 30, a patient of Zamora’s, learned this the hard way. As a hobbyist bodybuilder, for the last 10 years he’s spent more than an hour, five days a week, lifting weights. Suddenly, late last year, he began getting headaches and chest pains and feeling out of breath.
After extensive testing, Zamora told Zuccarelli he’d developed an enlarged heart. His heart muscle had been getting thicker, but because he wasn’t doing cardio, it wasn’t maintaining adequate function.
“I neglected to do cardio because my goal was simply to have a better physique and put on size. Ten years later, I’ve come to find it’s just not healthy for the body to grow in that way,” Zuccarelli said.
Now, he always accompanies heavy lifting with running or jumping rope.
6. Don’t go overboard
Good intentions to get in shape or build muscle can quickly lead to injury when you overdo it.
“Avoid the ‘toos’: Too much, too soon, too fast,” says Dr. Gautam Yagnik, an orthopedic surgeon at Baptist Hospital who’s a team physician for the Florida Panthers and the Miami Dolphins.
He recommends following the 10 percent rule — increase activity, mileage or weight no more than 10 percent a week. For recovering couch potatoes, it’s a good idea to start with just 30 minutes of exercise, three times a week. You can then build up to an hour or more over the course of two months.
7. Stay hydrated
It’s common sense, but not drinking enough water can cause cramps and dehydration. It’s especially important in steamy South Florida. Yagnik recommends filling up at least four hours before exercising. During your workout, drink at least two glasses of water every hour. And afterwards, drink at least two glasses for every pound of body weight you lost.
8. No pain, no gain — not really
A little soreness is fine. But not all pain is “good.” Discomfort in your joints or bones could be a sign of a stress fracture. If only one side of your body hurts, that could also signal an injury. Ignoring it could make for a longer recovery down the road.
9. Condition your muscles
Many injuries occur when one group of muscles is stronger than another. For example, when you work out the quadriceps, which runs along the front of your leg, Buchanan recommends also strengthening hamstrings by doing squats or curls. This keeps the knee stable and prevents injuries.
Buchanan also suggests getting resistance bands to condition knees, ankles and shoulders — this prevents injuries during cardio workouts.
10. Take care of minor aches
If you have a minor sprain, Buchanan recommends following the RICE protocol: Rest, Ice the area, Compress it with a bandage, and Elevate it. Elevating a foot or wrist for just 20 minutes several times a day can make a big difference, he says.
Instead of an expensive massage, Buchanan suggests investing in a simple foam roller. Available in exercise stores for about $15, these often come with instructions for soothing sore areas.
11. Listen to your body
Getting active with a partner or team can be a great motivator. But comparing yourself to others can lead to injuries and burnout. Be aware of your own progress and limits, and take your time.
Lifting weights that are too heavy can cause herniated discs. Running too far can injure ankles and knees. Some people can do high-impact workouts into their 80s, but others need to slow down.
“It’s very individualized. Being smart about what you’re doing and listening to your own body is very important,” Yagnik says.
12. Give yourself a break
Getting enough rest is key to preventing overuse injuries. Weightlifting, for example, involves breaking down muscle.
“You have to give your body time to build back that muscle. If you never give your body time to recover, it will start to break down,” Yagnik says.
He recommends not only taking time off between each activity, but also taking an exercise holiday once a year.
13. Get help as soon as you see warning signs
If pain is intense or doesn’t subside after a few days, don’t tough it out — see a physician right away. This can help you recover faster.
“With Miami Heat players, as soon as someone has the slightest injury they tell us,” Dr. Selesnick says. “We’re usually able to jump on it right away rather than let it get bad enough that they’re really incapacitated.”
14. Recover wisely
It’s rare that an injury requires stopping exercise altogether. But it could require modifications, working less intensely and taking more time off, says Dr. Lee Kaplan, chief of the UHealth sports medicine division at the University of Miami.
Many people are tempted to jump back into their old routine and end up injuring themselves again. For example, for “tennis elbow,” Kaplan suggests starting with 15 minutes of hitting and adding five minutes each time, with a day of rest in between. For those recovering from a serious condition, walking for 30 minutes a day is a good place to start.
15. Know when to stop
It’s rare, but sometimes an injury means it’s time to get out of the game — at least for a while. For example, if you’re training for a marathon and get a stress fracture in your hip, you’ll need to take a few months off.
“Sometimes the athlete has to accept that they’re not superheroes. You may have a condition where you need to slow down or sometimes even abandon the activity if it’s your career, if there’s no treatment for what you have or it’s too risky to do it,” Zamora said.