If you’ve made the healthy choice to start exercising, hooray! Getting active can reduce your risk of chronic illness, improve balance and coordination, and help you lose weight. But nothing dashes fitness hopes as quickly as pulling a muscle and taking a month off to heal.
For people who’ve never tried a training program before or who’re getting back into it after a long hiatus, how can you avoid getting hurt? Lisa Bradford, RN, a wellness coach at Baptist Healthy Living Centers, offered some advice.
Assess your health
It’s important to get a physical to make sure you’re healthy enough for exercise or find out whether you'll need certain restrictions, Bradford said. Also, if you’re planning to work with a personal trainer, he or she will want to know if you have any physical issues to work around, such as knee problems, hip problems or back problems.
After that, it’s time to make some choices. Will you join a gym? Work out at home? Take a class? Go it solo or with a buddy? It’s important to be aware of your preferences because they’ll affect your motivation.
“There are usually reasons why people become deconditioned,” Bradford said. “If you’ve exercised before, you’ll want to address why you stopped.”
Build endurance before strength
Cardiovascular exercises are the best way to start if you’re just jumping in, Bradford said, because they get your heart pumping and promote joint mobility. But, be careful not to try anything too intense right away. Walking is a great way to get started, rather than running. A spin class that sends your heart rate from 80 beats per minute to 155 immediately is a bad idea.
“I’ve seen new people who were exhausted when they were just starting out,” Bradford said. “They’re gasping for air and miserable. This experience likely won’t make them want to keep going.”
Walking is an activity almost anyone can modify to the right intensity level, though people with knee or foot problems may choose to ride a bicycle or swim instead. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends 150 minutes of moderate cardiovascular activity every week. That’s about 30 minutes, five days a week.
“Sometimes people struggle with that and I tell them not to worry about it,” Bradford said. “If you can only do 10 or 15 minutes, try to do it twice a day. Before you know it, you'll be up to 30 minutes.”
After you’ve built endurance, you can add strength activities. Bradford recommended trying just one new activity at a time and gauging how it feels. Exercises that work the large muscle groups – legs, shoulders, abs – are going to be easier. But stay away from high-intensity training for now. If you’re using gym equipment, go for less weight with more repetitions.
Consider a fitness coach
You may want to spare yourself the expense of a personal trainer, but paying for just one or two sessions can be a great way to get started, Bradford said. A personal trainer will know which kinds of exercises you can do right away and make sure your form is correct.
“A lot of times people will take a class offered at their gym or that they find online. But if you don't have the basics down, you’re at a higher risk of hurting yourself,” Bradford said. “When you're in a class with 15 people or watching a video online, a trainer can’t spot you or tell you if you're doing something wrong.”
Even squats or push-ups, when done incorrectly, can cause an injury, Bradford cautioned.
Keep it going
If you’re a young healthy person, it’s tempting to jump into exercise at the same level as when you played high school football or soccer. That’s not realistic, Bradford said. Even going on vacation for a couple of weeks can decondition a person enough that they’ll need to lower expectations when they return. Younger people will be able to ramp up more quickly, but everyone needs to ease back in.
“There's no magic wand with exercise. Fitness develops over time, but it does improve,” Bradford said. “Be consistent and slowly add to what you’re already doing. That’s the ticket.”