Exercise can help keep you out of the health-care system -- except when it doesn't.
With the added pressure of New Year's resolutions, people kicking off fitness regimes during the winter months can end up sabotaging their plans and hurting themselves if they overdo it, expect instant gratification or underestimate the body's need for recovery time, experts say.
"What many people try to do is go from zero to 60 in a flash," said Dr. Cedric Bryant, chief science officer for the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit group in San Diego.
"You either become frustrated because you experience significant levels of soreness, or you might find yourself breathing incredibly hard so that you think, 'Boy, I was right to stay on the couch.' The worst case is you might sustain some type of injury," he said.
Fitness experts offer the following advice when initiating a work-out regimen:
Focus on consistent participation, not performance
Take a slow and steady approach. "If you haven't been exercising, you want to start slowly and build gradually," said Barbara A. Brehm, professor of exercise and sport studies at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. "One of the leading causes of exercise dropout is injury, so you want to do everything you can to make sure the program is safe."
Injuries aren't always preventable, she admits, but those that result from overuse can be dodged with a less-is-more mindset among people just starting out. "You want to be reasonable."
Bryant agreed. "You're trying to develop a new habit and trying to punch the clock, so to speak," he said. "You're almost always better to initially undershoot rather than overshoot and then gradually increase."
Give yourself the talk test
Getting your heart pumping is a good goal, but exercise shouldn't preclude holding a normal conversation, Bryant said. "You shouldn't be as chatty as a teenager on a cell phone, but you should be able to hold a basic level of conversation without feeling winded or gasping for breath."
Like medication, think of exercise 'doses'
Physical activity is a key component of a healthy lifestyle, along with sensible eating and avoiding tobacco. Most people don't move their bodies enough. Two-thirds of adults are overweight or obese, and obesity can trigger a host of chronic illnesses including diabetes and heart disease.
But more people would benefit by considering the "exercise dosage" they're inflicting on their bodies -- a combination of frequency, intensity and duration, said Lori Thein Brody, a physical therapist and senior clinical specialist at the University of Wisconsin Clinics in Madison.
She said she sees some baby-boomer patients who tried to push their 50-year-old bodies to behave like 20-year-old ones. "For the intensity of the exercise program, they're not allowing sufficient recovery," she said. "The frequency and intensity are too high."
"On Monday they go to the gym, do weights, cross-training, and come back on Tuesday and do it again and by Friday they're dead," Brody said, noting that after about age 35, the body takes longer to repair itself.
"The worst thing is these people start a program and they get injured and they stop," she said. "They spend months in therapy to fix things and have no motivation to go back and start again."
Don't cheap out on footwear
Invest in sneakers that fit well and offer good support to protect your lower extremities from the impact of walking, running or jogging.
Be wary of overzealous or 'boot camp' exercise classes
So-called boot camp classes that promise to turn flab into muscle in a short time can seduce people into doing too much too soon and pushing their bodies beyond their limits, increasing the chance of injuries, Brody said.
Boot camp classes may be appropriate for those who have a baseline level of fitness, know their bodies and want to take themselves to the next level or try something new so they don't get bored, she said. But people just starting out are often not ready. "It's something you can do later on after you've trained."
Boot camp classes aren't all equally aggressive, Bryant said. "They are an emerging trend, and they certainly can have their place."
People new to exercise may not find them the best environment to progressively ease into an effective program, he said. But if they pursue it, they need to make sure the instructor helps them modify the exercises according to their individual exercise and injury history, he said.
"If you have been inactive for years and try to participate in one of these boot camp-type classes, particularly those that are more intense and tend to have a more stereotypical militaristic approach, that would be the perfect storm for experiencing some type of injury," Bryant said.
Brehm agreed that the herd mentality of group classes can be insidious. "Make sure the class is appropriate for your fitness level," she said. "A good instructor can tell you if you're appropriate for that class or not."
Listen to your body for pain signals
Exercise shouldn't be painful, and it's important to stop if it becomes so, Brody said. "You should go to fatigue and then it's time to stop. Anything beyond that [and] you're going to hurt yourself."
Normal muscle soreness from working out should resolve in two to three days, she said. "Anything that lasts beyond three days is a sign that you're doing too much. If [soreness] causes you to change how you move and perform exercise, it can lead to a secondary injury, even if that wasn't a primary injury itself," Brody said.
See a doctor if you experience any unusual, lingering or stabbing pains.
Try a medical fitness center
As boomers age, more are discovering the growing industry of medical fitness centers, which make personal attention and customized workouts the norm, said Cary Wing, executive director of the Medical Fitness Association, a nonprofit trade group representing 1,000 members based in Richmond, Va.
Medical fitness centers differ from regular gyms because the staff is made up of exercise physiologists, physical therapists, athletic trainers and other specialists with nationally recognized certification, she said. Patrons are asked to fill out a health risk assessment before they begin to exercise.
"If there are any risks or conditions identified that need physician follow-up, the facility will ask for a physician clearance or medical O.K. before they can start," Wing said. "That way it becomes a safe and effective means to their goals."
The centers also are designed to help people "step down" from rehabilitation and tailor programs for people with specific needs, such as weight loss.
"Most people join our facility because of the continuum of care," Wing said, noting a patron with knee pain could be working out with a physical therapist next to a patron with no known health risks. "It's a seamless environment."
Medical fitness centers grew rapidly in the 1990s and now serve four million people with an average age of about 45, she said.
Consider hiring a personal trainer to help you get started
Buying a few sessions with a trainer or therapist can be beneficial if you need a refresher on how to use gym equipment or guidance on how to design a fitness program that meets your needs, Bryant said. "Then you can go off on your own once you have that confidence."
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