Any type of physical activity carries a risk of injury, and exercise is no exception. Your risk of injury is increased if you don't warm up properly, if you're not wearing the appropriate protective clothing or equipment or if you over-train either during the session or by not allowing yourself sufficient rest and recovery between sessions.
Acute injuries involve immediate damage occurring during the session such as a back strain, or a sprained ankle. Most acute injuries occur suddenly without warning and there may be visible swelling with sudden pain, discomfort or tenderness as well as limitations in associated ranges of movement.
A chronic - or long-term - injury generally establishes itself gradually and results from overusing one specific area of the body either because of frequent long-duration activities or insufficient recovery between exercise sessions - or of course both. Swelling and inflammation may well be present and although you may be able to exercise, it will be with some degree of discomfort. Following your exercise session you may still feel a dull ache around the injured body area.
First of all - and most importantly - you should consult your doctor or specialist if you have any existing medical conditions, injuries or disabilities that may be affected by significant changes to your exercise activities or levels. It's also worth talking to your doctor if you're starting a new exercise programme and are aged over 40 years, have not exercised regularly in the recent past or are overweight.
Always make sure you use the correct techniques and safeguards for your activity and take advice where necessary. Be aware of temperature - try not to become too cold or too hot and stay hydrated, drinking fluids before, during and after exercise. Think twice about taking exercise when you are physically tired from the previous exercise session - allowing your muscles to fully recover will not only reduce your risk of injury but also lead to greater increases in fitness. You'll also feel fresher for your next session and, as a result, are likely to exercise more effectively.
Footwear is particularly important for weight-bearing exercises - especially walking and running. Make sure that your shoes are comfortable and supportive and that the heel has good shock-absorbing properties. If you're buying your shoes from a reputable store you should be able to get some good advice from the staff there. Conversely, if you're experiencing ankle, knee, hip or back problems, your footwear may be part of the problem so you should consider taking some expert advice from a physiotherapist or osteopath.
A proper warm-up is one of the most effective measures you can take to not only prevent injury but also to get more out of your workout.
There are two aspects to warming up. You first of all need to increase the blood flow to the working muscles. This is best achieved by carrying out your planned activity at a very low intensity for a few minutes. Once you've done this, the muscles are starting to warm and become more pliable so you're ready for the second part which is to increase their range of movement by gently stretching them. Stretches should again be of low intensity and held steady two or three times for around 20 seconds.
Now you're ready to work out - but remember to gradually build up your intensity over the first couple of minutes to get your muscles up to speed safely.
And cool down…
The aim of the cool-down is to allow your body's circulation and metabolism to re-adjust back to resting levels safely and comfortably. In doing so, you will also allow the body to more effectively 'work off' the metabolic waste products of exercise - this will leave you feeling less stiff and achy later on.
To cool down effectively, simply continue your activity at a low intensity for a few minutes as soon as you finish - your breathing should end up as relaxed as it is when you're at rest. As with the warm-up, the second phase is about stretching. This will reduce your stiffness later on but there's another reason to stretch - it's a great opportunity to increase your overall flexibility. There is no better time to stretch a muscle than when it's warm and full of blood so make the most of this post-exercise period to stretch your muscles fully at least twice for thirty seconds at a time. Good overall flexibility is a great way to reduce your future risk of strained muscles.
Above all, always stop exercise immediately if you sustain an injury and seek first aid.
If you experience any unusual or uncomfortable feelings either during or after exercise, you should consult your doctor.
In particular, you should stop your activity immediately and seek medical advice if you feel any of the following:
- light headedness
- difficulty breathing
- cold sweat
- pressure, stiffness or pain in your chest, neck, shoulders or arm, especially on the left side.