It’s the New Year which for many means turning over a new leaf to make healthy adjustments.

For some, the excitement of a better, healthier life pushes them to take on too much, too fast. But is that possible with exercise? Can you really have too much of a good thing?

The Evils of Exercise

In fact, there are many examples of exercise causing health problems.

COVID-19 restrictions caused revenues for recreational facilities and fitness clubs to drop by nearly 60% in 2020. But the decline in gym activities didn’t mean everyone was at home sitting on the couch: home fitness equipment sales increased by 170% as people made space at home to get in their regular workouts.

With the surge of do-it-yourself fitness programs came a significant increase in home exercise injuries, which were up by 48% in 2020. While some of these injuries were the result of accidents with fitness equipment, some were the result of overtraining.

Over-training isn’t a new issue that emerged with the pandemic. Brogan and colleagues presented a series of 46 rhabdomyolysis cases, 42 of whom occurred after their first spinning class. Rhabdomyolysis is a potentially life-threatening condition caused by the breakdown of skeletal muscle associated with excessive exercise. The damaged muscle releases factors into the blood which cause injury to other organs. One of the most vulnerable organs is the kidney, which can fail in severe cases of rhabdomyolysis. For many cases of rhabdomyolysis the cause is a combination of an untrained individual exercising at an intensity that was too high for their level of fitness.

Exercise, even strength training, contributes to a healthier heart. Yet, the most common cause of sudden death in athletes over 45 is sudden cardiac arrest. If exercise is so healthy, why do athletes die of heart attacks?

For one thing, the definition of “athlete” is loosely applied. In many cases, older adults who suffer a heart attack while exercising are so called “Weekend Warriors”: people who are largely sedentary except for episodic bouts of exercise, often on the weekends (hence, “weekend warriors”). A 2011 study found that while regular exercise benefits the heart, episodic physical activity increases the risk of a heart attack. Although exercise is the trigger for these heart attacks, many of these inactive adults have coronary artery disease which is the real problem.

The Keys to Safe and Effective Exercise

Accidents in the home…rhabdomyolysis…heart attacks…that sounds like 3 strikes for exercise.

Not so fast.

When not done properly or safely, exercise can be a health risk, just like anything else. The truth is that regular physical activity has benefits that are among the best strategies to obtain and maintain good health. But in order to reap those benefits while minimizing any risk, people looking to start an exercise program should follow a few simple but important steps.

Young and beautiful woman exercise in gym, she is doing incline bench press with light dumbbells
If strength training is your goal, begin by using lighter weights.

Start at the Beginning

There are many ways to ease into an exercise routine.

Prospective runners can start by walking. Gradually lengthen the time you are walking or increase your speed. Before you know it, you’ll be running away to health!

If strength training is your goal, begin by using lighter weights to make sure you can complete the exercises properly. Improper technique is a common cause of injury. Add weight over time as the exercises become easier to do, but make sure to drop back on the number of repetitions with added weight, and gradually increase them over time.

For something more formal, join a beginner-level activity online or at a local fitness centre, or create your own program starting with simple, low intensity exercises. Consider more advanced classes once you are comfortable with the entry level ones.

Regardless of the activity, go at your own pace. Once you are comfortable with the activities and can complete them without significant soreness or injuries, then look at moving to the next level. It doesn’t take much activity to see the benefits of exercise, so even low intensity exercises at the beginning will have a positive impact on health.

Warm-up

Warming up before starting an exercise program has always been important. Now, with many people working and exercising at home, simple things like walking from work to a fitness club are less likely. It might not seem like much, but the regular activity of daily life and the short walk to the gym provided low-level activity to warm up the muscles. With that less likely, warm-up exercises are more important than ever.

A proper warm-up routine isn’t complicated or time consuming. Low-intensity exercise like a short jog or jumping rope will help get the heart and muscles going. Stretching or dynamic exercises like squats, lunges, and leg kicks help to warm-up the muscles and joints. A total of 5-10 minutes is all that is needed to loosen up the body and get ready for exercise.

Large group of athletic people doing various exercises on a sports training at penthouse balcony.
Add variety to your exercise routine to avoid injury.

Variety is the Spice of Life

One of the most common reasons for injury is overuse of a body part. Doing the same routine every time can cause damage that isn’t properly repaired by rest. Routines that incorporate aerobic exercises and strength training, and varying the activities that are included, will not only reduce the risk of injury due to overuse, but it will also provide a more comprehensive workout and decrease the risk of getting bored.

 Keep It Regular

Regular exercise is good for the body, and sporadic bouts of intense activity may actually be damaging. Whether it is the sudden strain placed on the heart causing a heart attack, or tearing of rarely used muscles, the body can have a hard time responding on demand to irregular exercise.

Regular exercise doesn’t have to mean every day. Ease into exercise programs with activities 2-3 times a week, and gradually step up the frequency. Scheduling time for exercise is important to make sure time is available and to keep a routine.

Take a Load Off

Rest is just as important as exercise.

Having a variety of exercise options helps to rotate through different parts of the body that are involved, and it provides some rest. But full days off are critical to allow your body time to repair. It is also a good mental break to take some time to relax.

Just like exercise, rest days should be scheduled into your plans.

Fitness woman drinking water from bottle
Listen to your body and take a break when needed.

Listen to Your Body

The old adage ‘no pain, no gain’ should be put in the dustbin of exercise myths.

It is true that exercise pushes the body beyond its normal activities, and physical activity is often associated with fatigue and some muscle soreness, but pain isn’t a normal part of any exercise routine.

If you feel uncomfortable or have soreness that persists long after an activity is complete, listen to your body and take a break. A break could be anything from avoiding exercises with that muscle group or joint, or even taking a few days of extra rest to allow your body some time to repair and recover.

A short period of rest to avoid serious damage is less of an interruption to your training program than several weeks of downtime to recover from an injury.

Signs, Signs, Everywhere a Sign

Know the signs of injury and stop before it gets worse.

General muscle soreness is common after exercise, especially if the routine is new. Exercise can cause small amounts of muscle damage, which is normal. This “micro-damage” can lead to muscle ache starting 6-8 hours after exercise and may last up to 3 days. Soreness typically decreases during exercise, but if the pain interferes with the activity or gets worse during exercise, the activity should be avoided until symptoms subside.

Set Realistic Goals

Motivation is a huge obstacle for many in starting and maintaining an exercise program. Setting short- and long-term goals that are realistic creates a series of objectives that help motivate people to continue regular activities.

Using tracking devices is helpful to monitor progress. This could be everything from a high-end watch that tracks movement and physiological parameters, to taking a heart rate by hand. As you become more fit your resting heart rate will decrease. Measuring your resting heart rate by counting the number of beats in a minute is a simple and effective way to measure how beneficial an exercise program is.

Goals are important to assess progress and create motivation, but they should be flexible and realistic. It is okay to adjust your goals, especially if you are just starting an exercise program. It’s also important to have a variety of goals so that your success and failure don’t all ride on one measurement.

No matter what the specific goals are, the two most important ones should be to have fun and feel healthier. Exercise is all about making yourself feel better and if it isn’t enjoyable, it isn’t healthy.

Bottomline

The world of fitness and training is a fast growing one, with new innovations emerging all the time. Trends come and go, and with it the motivation to exercise. It’s okay to check out the latest fad and see if it meets your needs. But before you take the plunge this year, remember a few key points:

  • Set some goals and think about the best exercise activities to reach them
  • Ease into a program to avoid getting injured
  • Design a plan that fits into your lifestyle
  • Don’t just plan to exercise, plan to rest
  • Most importantly, make sure to enjoy your activities

With these tips as a guide, you’re off to a great start on the path to health!