When people begin a new exercise program, they often push their bodies too far and put themselves at risk for injury. The common notion that exercise must be really hard or painful to be beneficial is simply wrong. Moderation is the key to safe exercise. Safe exercise programs start slowly and gradually build up in frequency, intensity, and duration.
In addition, contact your doctor before beginning any vigorous physical activity if:
- You have an existing health problem, such as high blood pressure or diabetes
- You have a history of heart disease
- You are a smoker
Safe Exercise Guidelines
- Dress Appropriately. Wear comfortable, loose-fitting clothes that let you move freely and are lightweight enough to release body heat. When exercising outdoors in high temperatures, wear light-colored clothing. When exercising in cold weather, dress in removable layers.
- Replace Your Athletic Shoes as They Wear Out. How often you need to swap out old athletic shoes for new ones will vary depending on the shoe material, the types of workouts you do, the workout surfaces, and other factors. In general, it's recommended that you replace workout shoes every 300 to 500 miles or 6 to 8 months (whichever comes first). The more you work out, the faster you'll likely need to replace your shoes.
- Strike the Right Balance. Develop a balanced fitness program that incorporates cardiovascular exercise, strength training, and flexibility exercises. In addition to providing a total body workout, a balanced program will keep you from getting bored and lessen your chances of injury.
- Warm Up. Warm up to prepare to exercise, even before stretching. Run in place for a few minutes, breathe slowly and deeply, or gently rehearse the motions of the exercise to follow. Warming up increases your heart and blood flow rates and loosens up other muscles, tendons, ligaments, and joints.
- Stretch. Begin stretches slowly and carefully until reaching a point of muscle tension. Hold each stretch for 10 to 20 seconds, then slowly and carefully release it. Inhale before each stretch and exhale as you release. Never stretch to the point of pain, always maintain control, and never bounce on a muscle that is fully stretched.
- Take Your Time. During strength training, move through the full range of motion with each repetition. Breathe regularly to help lower your blood pressure and increase blood supply to the brain.
- Stay Hydrated. Drink enough water to prevent dehydration and heat injury (like heatstroke). Drink 1 pint of water 15 minutes before you start exercising and another pint after you cool down. Have a drink of water every 20 minutes or so while you exercise.
- Cool Down. Make cooling down the final phase of your exercise routine. It should take twice as long as your warm-up. Slow your motions and lessen the intensity of your movements for at least 10 minutes before you stop completely. This phase of a safe exercise program should conclude when your skin is dry and you have cooled down.
- Rest. Schedule regular days off from exercise and rest when tired. Fatigue, significant muscle soreness, and pain are good reasons to not exercise.
Common Sports Injuries
Exercise puts repetitive stress on many parts of the body, including muscles, tendons, bursae (small fluid-filled sacs that cushion the bones, muscles, and tendons near joints), cartilage, bones, and nerves.
Repetitive stress can lead to microtraumas — minor injuries that would typically heal with enough rest. When you exercise too frequently, your body never has a chance to repair these microtraumas. As microtraumas build up over time, you become prone to overuse injuries specific to your activities, such as:
- Elbow ligament injuries in athletes who throw
- Patellofemoral pain and stress fractures in runners
- Nerve entrapment at the elbow in rowers
- Kneecap (patellar) tendinitis in volleyball and basketball players
- Lateral epicondylitis in tennis players and medial epicondylitis in golfers
To build strength and endurance from exercise, you must slowly and gradually push your body beyond its current limits. When you push too far too fast, the body is prone to traumatic injuries such as sprains and fractures. Many seasonal sports injuries happen when athletes rush their reconditioning and do too much too soon with bones, joints, tendons, ligaments, and muscles they ignored in the off-season.
There are many risk factors that make injury during exercise more likely.
- The duration, intensity, or frequency of an exercise is excessive or rapidly increasing.
- The terrain or weather conditions are extreme or irregular.
- You use incorrect gear, such as athletic shoes that are not designed for your activity.
- You have been injured in the past.
- You smoke or have led a sedentary lifestyle.
- You have low aerobic or muscle endurance, low or imbalanced strength, or abnormal or imbalanced flexibility.
- You have underlying musculoskeletal conditions that predispose you to injury, such as bowed legs or high arches in your feet.
Accidents can happen despite safe exercise precautions. If you pull a muscle (or worse) during exercise, apply a protective device such as a sling, splint, or brace. Then use the first aid standard for musculoskeletal injuries: rest, ice, compression, and elevation (RICE).
- Rest the injury.
- Ice it to lessen swelling, bleeding, and inflammation. Do 20 minutes on/20 minutes off. Do not apply ice directly to the skin; use an ice pack or towel to avoid direct contact.
- Apply a compression bandage to limit swelling.
- Elevate the injury above heart level when possible to reduce swelling.
You may use nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen or naproxen for pain. See your doctor if:
- You have severe pain
- You cannot move or put weight on the injured body part
- Your symptoms persist (do not go away)
Contributed and/or Updated by
AAOS does not endorse any treatments, procedures, products, or physicians referenced herein. This information is provided as an educational service and is not intended to serve as medical advice. Anyone seeking specific orthopaedic advice or assistance should consult his or her orthopaedic surgeon, or locate one in your area through the AAOS Find an Orthopaedist program on this website.