Your fitness level depends on getting regular exercise, but how you approach an exercise program will determine whether it enhances your well-being or actually causes a problem — the exact opposite of your intention. Push yourself too hard or use the wrong equipment, even the wrong shoes, and you can injure yourself.
The first tip to remember: Resist plowing full steam ahead into an exercise program. That’s a surefire way to overexert and hurt yourself. A safe fitness plan always starts slowly and develops at a steady pace as you learn proper form and build endurance. As you gain more strength, skill, and stamina, you will be able to ramp up the intensity of your routine.
Exercise Program Safety Tip No. 1: Warm Up, Cool Down
You need to prepare your body for exercise by going through a warm-up period. Performing 5 to 10 minutes of low-level aerobic activity will get your blood flowing, increase the temperature of your muscles, and start you breathing faster, all of which help your body adjust to the demands you will be placing on it during exercise Every workout session should end the same way: Cool down following moderate or intense exercise by gradually decreasing your pace, allowing your heart rate and your breathing to return to normal.
Exercise Program Safety Tip No. 2: Stretch
Stretching before you move into the intense portion of your workout will help you get the most out of your fitness routine and stay flexible in general. Just remember that stretching follows your warm-up — you can injure yourself if you try stretching cold muscles.
Just as you want to cool down after exercise, you also want to stretch after you cool down. Since your muscles will be warm, you will gain even more flexibility from after-exercise stretching.
Get the most out of every stretch with these tips:
- Perform each stretch slowly and gently — and hold for up to 30 seconds.
- Never bounce during a stretch; relax into it and hold it.
- Ease into each stretch; if you feel any discomfort, you’re pushing the stretch too hard.
Exercise Program Safety Top No 3: Get the Right Gear
You don’t have to buy expensive exercise apparel to work out, but you should have the right gear or equipment for the activity you’ve chosen, both for your comfort and safety. Consult a fitness expert or trainer for specifics, but in general, here’s what you’ll need:
- Athletic shoes appropriate to the activity, such as walking or running shoes. Keep in mind that workout shoes should be replaced every six months or possibly sooner if you’re pounding away at them.
- Weather-appropriate clothing. In warm weather, wear comfortable clothing that allows you to move freely and is light enough to release body heat. In cold weather, dress in layers than can easily peel off, if needed, as your body temperature rises.
- Any necessary protective equipment, such as a helmet for cycling or reflective clothing for street running.
Exercise Program Safety Tip No. 4: Add Variety
Overuse injuries can occur when you do the same type of exercise over and over again. For example, swimmers place a lot of repetitive strain on their shoulders, while runners pound away at their knees, ankles, and feet. Another negative of "too much of a good thing": Your body will adapt if you do only one type of exercise, and you will find yourself getting less benefit from it.
The best exercise programs involve a mix of aerobic activity and strength training, along with stretching. According to guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Prevention and Control, each week you should aim for a total of 150 minutes of aerobic exercise at a moderate intensity or 75 minutes at high intensity, plus a minimum of two strength-training sessions. Always take off at least one day between strength training sessions to allow your muscles to recover. And consider varying your aerobic activity — swimming, brisk walking, basketball, to name a few — to keep it interesting.
Exercise Program Safety Tip No. 5: Hydrate
Make sure you're replacing the fluids you are losing through sweat. If you don't, you could end up dehydrated or with heat exhaustion. A good rule of thumb is to drink 2 cups (16 ounces) of water about 15 minutes prior to your exercise program and another 16 ounces after you cool down. Be sure to drink during exercise, too — a quick sip every 15 to 20 minutes will help you stay hydrated.
Exercise Program Safety Tip No. 6: Listen to Your Body Language
It's normal for your muscles to feel sore 12 to 24 hours after a good workout. But if you have pain that occurs during your workout or immediately afterward, talk to your doctor. The same goes for muscle soreness that persists for more than a week or two. And while it's good to be dedicated to your exercise program, don't work out when you’re not feeling well or are extremely tired.
Remember that if you exercise smart and gradually increase the length and intensity of your workouts, you’ll stay in the game, stay challenged, and stay safe.