Ahh January. After the champagne flutes and the ball drop and the confetti, it’s time for the annual Big Shift. What is the big shift you ask? Well the Big Shift (or the B.S.) is when the entire country moves from thoughts of spending time with family and spending money and eating big wonderful meals and fabulous homemade treats to thoughts of shame and guilt. Every ad on television features a guy holding out pants that are 10 sizes too big for him or babes in bikinis and high heels glibly promising to create a whole new you. It’s enough to fuel a full-on fat panic. And that fat panic can lead to injury.
Fueled by fat panic, many people try to do too much too quickly after the holidays. They jump right into an exercise program and end up limping right back out with a sports-related injury. According to the British Osteopathic Association, panic over holiday weight leads to a 20 per cent increase in the number of people visiting their osteopaths for treatment in January.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can significantly increase your fitness level and still stay safe. You just have to apply a modicum of common sense and a few simple rules:
1. Assess your current fitness level. Ah, the life of the weekend warrior. You haven’t played softball since you were 10, but how hard can it be, right? You got a new bike for Christmas and want to take that baby out for a 15-mile ride, except you haven’t done that before, EVER. Your personal trainer wants you to produce great “results” for his before/after bulletin board so he trains you so hard you can’t get out of bed the next day. And it’s a surprise that the sports medicine doctor is completely booked at the end of January? The answer here is just two words: start small. Think back to the last time you did any sort of exercise. Was it recent (less than a month ago?) Did you feel okay afterwards? If you recently exercised and felt okay afterwards, whatever you did that day was a reasonable starting place for that particular form of exercise. If you’re trying a new form of exercise, you need to back off even further. Just because you can walk for 20 minutes, doesn’t mean you can play 20 minutes of squash without getting hurt.
If you haven’t worked out in a long time (or ever) you need to start very small in a safe place and check in regularly with your body to determine your starting point. You can get some help from a personal trainer. Or you can check out my “Rock the Block” exercise as a great way to determine your starting level.
2. Ramp up Slowly. If you’re walking 3 miles per week this week, it doesn’t mean that next week you should do 6. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, people are more prone to injuries when they increase the intensity and duration of their workouts without building up slowly—something more common in people who want to make up for lost time.
One of the main reasons for gym injuries is trying to ramp up too quickly—especially in exercises on machines designed to strengthen abdominal and lateral (side) muscles. This can lead to injuries of the lower back and even cause respiratory problems by straining the muscles in the chest.
You should ramp your overall activity level by no more than 10% per week. This means you may increase ONE aspect of your workout by 10% per week. You can increase the distance or duration (distance traveled or number of minutes exercised) the intensity (walking pace, heart rate) OR the frequency (number of workouts per week) by 10% per week.
A 10% increase doesn’t seem like a lot, but it’s cumulative and it adds up. After one New Year’s eve resolution, I started walking about 6 miles per week. By increasing my distance by just 10% per week, I was able to complete a marathon by the end of the year! Had I started out much more aggressively I probably would have gotten injured and never finished. It pays to be the tortoise and not the hare.
3. Listen to your body. Your body is a finely tuned instrument. When it’s not working at an optimal level, it will let you know. Aches, pains and other symptoms are like your body’s dashboard indicators. And these indicators are very important.
Most of us, treasure our cars. We wouldn’t think of ignoring a “check engine” light on the dashboard. We wouldn’t continue to try to drive on a flat tire. We wouldn’t drive blithely by with a loud thumping noise under the hood. But how many of us, ignore the signals our bodies give us as we’re trying to exercise? If you’ve ever stretched something too far, or popped something out of place, you’ve probably experienced either severe muscle tension or pain. This pain is the proverbial thumping noise under the hood. If you experience pain, you need to STOP, pull the car over and figure out what the heck is going on. Here are some warning signs you should never ignore as you work out.:
- Feeling of dizziness or lightheadedness
- Feeling of tightness or pain in chest, trunk, back or jaw
- Extreme breathlessness
- Unusual fatigue
- Loss of muscle control
- Allergic reactions—hives or rash
- Blurred vision
Let me summarize, it’s normal to feel fatigue or a slight ache after exercise. But generally speaking, if it hurts, don’t do it!
That’s it! Remember, you don’t have to succumb to the national, annual B.S. You don’t have to be a weekend warrior. Just follow those three simple rules and you will be exercising safely and happily through January, past Valentine’s Day and through the entire year.