Exercising Safely


by Nora Penia

You’ve finally decided this is it – you’re going to get serious about exercising, you’ve selected an interesting and do-able activity and are raring to go.

Stop for a moment and think about safety.

Exercise can improve health and well-being, help you firm up, trim down and energize you. But, it can also cripple your body and derail an attempt at improvement.

Start Slow

No matter what activity you’ve chosen, start slow, whether it’s running, walking, biking, weight training or a sport. Rein in your enthusiasm to jump in full force.

Overworking muscles unused to specific actions can cause muscle strains, ligament tears and a great deal of pain. Any consistent repetitive movement can cause unusual strain. Walking for exercise is different from start and stop strolling through the local mall.

Even if no real damage is done, waking up in pain can be a big turn off to resuming a new exercise regime. And, sustaining an injury, which may require weeks or months of recovery, will certainly make it difficult to start again.

Plan a reasonable schedule – ten or fifteen minutes, two or three times a week for the first week or two, and gradually increase the length of time spent working out. In just a few weeks, adding a few minutes more each week, the time spent in exercise will grow to a reasonable thirty minutes or hour.

If you’ve never exercised, or have been out of shape for a long time, see your doctor for the go-ahead and perhaps some recommendations for type of exercise, frequency and schedule.

Dress for success

Choose comfortable clothes, simple in style, streamlined to avoid tripping or catching on objects. Fabrics with built in stretch provide lots of give and take when moving and stay in place.

Good quality shoes and absorbent, breathable socks will help prevent blisters, and add a little bounce to your step. In the winter, dress in layers so you can remove clothing as you warm up. In the summer, a towel you can tuck into your waistband or a terry cloth headband will help keep perspiration out of your eyes.

First things first

Most experts recommend warming up before exercising or playing sports. Many people skip over this preliminary and then wonder why they experience sore muscles or minor injuries.

Plan a few minutes extra for some slow walking combined with gentle swinging of the arms before the main event. Or, stand in place and march, lifting the knees comfortably high, while raising and lowering the arms at the side or above the head. Twist from side to side, slowly and gently, letting the arms move freely or try a few slow jumping jacks.

The key is to gradually get the blood flowing into your muscles, and wake them up gently for their workout. You don’t like to be hauled out of bed in the morning, do you? Your muscles will thank you for the easy wake-up call.

Exercise properly

Each exercise activity has its own rules. Rules are good. They exist to help prevent injury and insure best results. Proper posture and technique can prevent injury and actually speed the development of muscles and measurable improvements. Read a book, watch a video, take a class or join a spa to learn the ins and outs of whatever activity you choose.

Some sports require protective padding or headgear – don’t overlook these. A ten dollar bike helmet can save a life; elbow and knee pads for skating can cushion a fall preventing cuts and breaks which could take weeks to heal. Don’t skimp on safety – you’ll never regret it.

Get active in a safe area

Don’t try aerobic dancing in the middle of a cluttered living room – you need space to move around. Don’t skate inline down the middle of a road. Don’t ride a bike on a busy highway. Don’t run after dark. Give safety a little thought.

If you leave your home to exercise, carry a small index card with emergency information – just in case. Your name, blood type, doctor’s name and number, family contact information and any special medical conditions. Hopefully it will never be needed, but could save your life in an emergency.

Food and drink

Exercise requires energy, so be sure to avoid working out on an empty stomach. Avoid fatty foods, or foods high in simple sugars, like candy bars or sodas. Heavy meals will feel like a brick in your stomach and may cause nausea.

Stick to complex carbohydrates, which are easily digested and provide the necessary glucose your muscles need. A bean taco, cottage cheese, or nutrition bar will break down slowly, providing continued nourishment during your exercise session.

Drink before, during and after your workout. Fortunately, carrying a water bottle is quite the fashion now, so you won’t feel odd taking a bottle of water with you. Water is one of the most basic needs and when you work the body, water is lost and must be replaced. Besides, it will taste wonderful.

You’re not done, till you’re done

Stretching is the most overlooked aid to a safe, constructive workout. An extra five or ten minutes spent in stretching can save hours of pain and even prevent injuries. Heel-spurs are perhaps the most common result of not stretching after running, walking, biking or any activity requiring extensive use of the legs, including some forms of weight training. In most cases heel spurs can be avoided or remedied through the use of a few simple stretches.

In addition to rewarding your muscles for a job well-done, stretching can prevent the day-after-head-to-toe-soreness often suffered by new fitness seekers. It’s an investment costing only a few minutes.

Gently stretch every muscle used in the workout, holding each position for twenty seconds, never bouncing or straining. Stretching should not hurt. There are many books and videos available which illustrate proper stretching technique.

Once learned, stretching can be done anywhere and is a great way to prepare for a good night’s sleep. It’s also a wonderful way to start the day, but care should be taken, when stretching cold muscles, to avoid over-stretching. Be very gentle and don’t push sleepy muscles to the same extent as after a good workout.

Give it time

It’s only human to expect instant results, but, although the human body is wonderfully adaptive and will respond to diet and exercise, it will take a little time to notice marked improvements.

So, try to focus on the pleasure of moving your body, and before you know it, changes will surprise and delight you. Clothes will loosen up, muscles will harden, chores will get easier and your reservoir of energy will deepen.

© 1999 Nora Penia. All rights reserved.

For information on reprinting this article, contact: nora@atthefence.com The author previously taught relationship and parenting classes as well as facilitated  support groups and advocated for victims of abuse.  For over two years she has written an online advice column called At the Fence.

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