Most of us know what we should be doing to take care of ourselves — eat well, maintain a healthy weight, get enough sleep, etc. But what about looking after your body when it comes to exercising? Sure – you may be exercising regularly, but are you really taking good care of your body?
Your exercise routine shouldn’t be just about getting 30 minutes of moderate activity on most days and leaving it at that. What about stretching? Do you hydrate your body enough before and after exercise? What about recovery time or injury prevention? With preparation and common sense, you can reduce your risk of exercise injury and continue to gain health and fitness benefits.
There is a risk of injury with any type of physical activity. Injuries can occur if you do not have the right skills and equipment necessary for the type of physical activity you plan to do. But generally the benefits of staying active far outweigh the risks.
Some types of physical activity involve specific injury risks, but general risk factors include:
- Lack of fitness
- Inexperience or poor technique (‘form’)
- Failure to wear protective equipment
- Certain manoeuvres, such as sudden movements or changing direction at speed
- High-impact or high-risk activities
- Contact between players
When undertaking any kind of exercise program it is important that you choose activities that are suited to your abilities and fitness level. If you are playing a sport, you need to ensure that you understand the rules of the game and how to use any safety equipment appropriately. And if you are new to a sport or exercise, you may wish to engage the services of a personal trainer or coach to ensure that you are performing the activity correctly.
Other basic things to consider are ensuring you are wearing appropriate clothing (i.e. shoes, bike helmet, buoyancy vest, etc.) that will keep you safe, yet still enable you to move freely. If you have long hair, you might like to tie it back so it doesn’t get in the way and prevent you from seeing properly.
Protecting your body
Exercising can put a lot of strain and pressure on your muscles, joints and ligaments. Warming up before exercise helps to loosen muscles, increase blood flow and prepare your whole body for exercise. Cooling down helps the whole body recover from exercise. There is some proof that warming up and cooling down can (slightly) reduce muscle soreness after exercise. Warming up has also been shown to improve performance during exercise.
Next time you head out for your regular exercise session, warm up gently and slowly for 10 minutes or more before you begin your exercise. Sometimes a light jog is a great option. After you have finished, make sure you leave time for a cool down. This could be in the form of another light jog or a lighter form of the exercise you are doing (i.e. slow swimming or cycling).
Stretching, warming up and cooling down were previously thought to aid injury prevention during exercise. However, there is not a lot of evidence that these activities are effective in reducing exercise injury risk. Stretching certainly doesn’t pose any problem however, so if you have been in the habit of stretching, keep doing it because it does help with increased flexibility.
Hydration and nutrition
Good nutrition and hydration are essential to help you perform at your best when exercising. For anyone participating in exercise at a moderate level, a healthy diet that includes plenty of fruit, vegetables and water will usually suffice.
Maintaining your body in a fully hydrated state is essential for both your health and your performance when exercising. Dehydration reduces exercise performance and increases the risk of heat-related illness. It can cause cramping of the muscles. So it’s important to be fully hydrated when you start exercising, and to maintain a regular intake of fluids while exercising to prevent dehydration.
If you are exercising for less than 60 minutes, you should drink approximately 200 mL of fluid every 15-20 minutes. Water is the best option in this situation. In longer duration activities where there is a risk of glycogen depletion, such as more than 60 minutes of vigorous exercise, a sports drink containing glucose and electrolytes can be most effective. In hot and humid conditions, you may need to increase these volumes.
After exercise, it is important to restore your body’s fuel and fluid stores to normal levels. For most people this is easily achieved by following a healthy diet that includes plenty of fruit and vegetables, and plenty of non-alcoholic, non-caffeinated fluids.
Note: People with diabetes, people with metabolic disorders and those on special diets should consult their specialist and dietician for advice on how to modify food and fluid intake in accordance with exercise.
Recovery time and mixing it up
Just because you are fit doesn’t mean that your body doesn’t need a rest. Our bodies need time to recover from exercise in order for it to repair and regenerate. This is particularly the case with weight training. You should not weight train on consecutive days, but should have at least one or two days in between where you are not performing that exercise. If you are the kind of person who likes to exercise every day, try mixing it up. For example, one day you may do your weight training, the next day go for a gentle walk or do some yoga. On the third day you may like to rest and on the fourth try swimming or bike riding. If you keep doing the same exercise over and over you are more likely to sustain an injury, so keep a variety of activities in the mix.
Protect yourself from the environment
It’s also important that you dress for conditions to protect against cold (i.e. wetsuit, thermal gear) and to avoid heat stress (e.g. loose light-coloured clothing, layers, etc.). You should also be ‘SunSmart’ by protecting your skin from ultraviolet (UV) radiation and sun damage. That means wearing a suitable hat (if appropriate), Australian Standard approved sunglasses and applying sunscreen.
Signs of wear and tear
Our bodies are designed to move, but they also need rest. When we don’t rest, our bodies don’t have time to repair themselves and injury can occur. When we sustain an acute injury (sudden injury) such as a sprained ankle, we are usually aware of it straight away. Chronic injuries (those sustained over time) can be a little harder to notice until it is quite painful. That’s why it is important to be in tune with your body and notice when something is wrong. Some signs of wear and tear on your body include:
- Sore muscles, tendons or ligaments
- Joint pain
- Headache — it could be a sign of a neck or shoulder injury
- Being more susceptible to illness
- Feelings of fatigue
- Loss of interest in exercise or other activities.
A chronic injury evolves slowly with time and tends to hurt even when at rest. Using an affected joint usually triggers greater pain. The most common cause of a chronic soft tissue injury is overuse. Contributing factors to overuse injuries include poor technique, structural abnormalities and exercising too frequently without sufficient recovery breaks.
If an injury occurs
If you or someone else is injured you should:
- Stop exercise immediately to help prevent any further damage
- Seek first aid or prompt medical treatment from qualified personnel. This is important for all injuries – no matter how severe or seemingly insignificant the injury is
- Don’t resume exercise until you are completely recovered from any injury.
If you are injured, don’t try to keeping going as you risk making the injury worse. Give your body time to heal to minimise long-term damage. Consult with a health professional (such as a physiotherapist) before restarting exercise after injury — they can work with you to plan your safe return to activity.
While it’s important to get your 30 minutes per day of moderate intensity exercise, it is just as important to take care of your body by taking a few safety precautions. You also need to eat well, rest your body and most importantly, listen to it. By doing that, you can continue to enjoy being active.
resource: Healthlogix – Australian Corporate Wellness online www.australiancorporatewellness.com.au