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Six Ways To Reduce Risk Of Injury
Posted by Dr. Ben Kim
There's no question that it's healthy to engage in exercise and activities that create and maintain muscle mass. Beyond warding off osteoporosis, regular exercise that builds up and sustains muscle can significantly decrease risk of diabetes type 2, as skeletal muscle acts as a storage reservoir for excess sugar that makes its way into your bloodstream. Put another way, the more skeletal muscle mass you maintain, the greater capacity your body has to prevent diabetes and other types of cardiovascular disease.
As with all good things, exercise to promote healthy muscle mass can end up being harmful if it's taken to extremes. Exercise-induced injuries are a major cause of compromised quality of life - you don't know how much a torn anterior cruciate ligament, herniated cervical disk, or ruptured Achilles tendon will affect your activities of daily living until you experience one of these injuries.
So here are some guidelines to keep in mind to ensure that exercise enhances your health and doesn't significantly increase your risk of a serious physical injury:
- Don't do too much too early in the morning.
Blood circulation is at its worst when you wake up. As you go about your day, your heart rate goes up and blood flow to your tendons and ligaments improves. So risk of sprains, strains, and outright tears of ligaments, tendons, and muscles decreases if you exercise later in the day vs. first thing in the morning.
It's okay to exercise in the morning if this is what works best for your schedule; just be sure that you get a good night's rest before, and that you engage in a thorough warm-up to encourage optimal blood flow before you begin pushing your body with vigorous activity.
- If you're not well rested, don't have a heavy workout.
A "heavy" workout would be a weight-lifting session, a long run, or any sports that involve explosive movements or sustained pressure on major joints, like tennis, squash, martial arts, hockey, and downhill skiing.
One of the keys to preventing injury is to be physically balanced while you're in motion. Balance is a function of an optimally firing nervous system that is highly sensitive to input from joint, tendon, and muscle receptors, plus receptive muscles and tendons that carry out the nervous system's real-time commands to maintain balance through coordinated muscle contraction and relaxation. None of this happens at anywhere close to your best level if you are tired. If you're not consistently balanced while in motion, you will get injured, it's just a matter of time.
You might get away with a handful of workouts while you are fatigued without hurting yourself, but one bad injury could sideline you for many weeks or months, so the risk just isn't worth it. Far better to take time to rest, and then to return to exercising the next time you are feeling fresh and alert.
- Make sure you breathe evenly as you exercise.
This is natural for most endurance activities like running or cycling, but it's not as instinctive when taking your body through explosive, anaerobic activities.
For example, when lifting weights, be sure to breathe out during the concentric (contraction) phase, and to breathe in during the eccentric phase (when you lower the weight). Or when you're hitting a ball in tennis or squash, train yourself to exhale with each strike. The idea is to avoid holding your breathe as you're exerting muscle power - doing so increases intrathecal pressure (the amount of pressure felt throughout your central nervous system), which, over time, can increase your risk of herniating a disc in your spine.
Holding your breath for extended periods while exercising can also increase risk of injury from sub-optimal gas exchange i.e. insufficient oxygenation of your blood and accumulation of carbon dioxide.
- Save the bulk of your stretching routine for after your workouts.
Stretching your major muscle groups when they are well perfused with blood optimizes flushing out of waste products like lactic acid and leads to lasting gains in muscle flexibility.
Stretching to end ranges of motion before your muscles are fully warmed up is a reliable way to experience sprains and strains, especially with increasing age.
- Consider foam rolling your major muscle groups as you go through your post-workout stretches.
High level athletes utilize deep pressure work by physios and registered massage therapists after intense workouts to experience optimal flushing of waste products, thereby improving recovery time and decreasing risk of injury (tissues that are saturated with waste products are more apt to get injured during subsequent workouts).
Foam rolling is an inexpensive and easy way to experience the benefits of deep pressure work; you can do it anywhere and at any time. For more guidance on foam rolling, have a look through our stretching and foam rolling archive here:
In my experience, just 10 to 15 minutes of foam rolling all major muscle groups after workouts is the single most effective way to reduce the incidence of sprains and strains.
- Don't attempt to exercise your way through an injury.
Sometimes, the temptation is to work your way through various niggles, the hope being that moving around will help loosen up troublesome areas. More often than not, this is a losing strategy.
Where there is pain, there is inflammation that your body is using to help heal injured tissues. Vigorous exercise will only impede healing. It's fine to do light exercise to maintain range of motion and strength, but only if you don't feel pain. Any movements that cause discomfort should be avoided until such movements can be executed without any pain.
When you are tired and/or when you feel pain, it's best to rest, not exercise.
Please consider sharing these tips on how to reduce risk of injury with family and friends who may not be aware of these principles. Thank you.
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