8 Tips for Staying Fit and Injury-free at the Gym

By Margaret Harvey, DO

1.  Start with a Warm Up. Don’t challenge cold muscles. Run in place for a few minutes before stretching, gently and slowly practice the motions of the exercise to follow. Warming up increases the body temperature, heart and blood flow rates, and loosens up the muscles, tendons, ligaments, and joints to decrease the risk of injury.

2. Don’t Skip the Stretch. Start stretching slowly and carefully until reaching a point of tension. Hold each stretch for 20 seconds, and then slowly and carefully release it. Never stretch to the point of pain and avoid bouncing on a muscle that is fully stretched. It’s terrific to do stretching exercises at home each day to maintain flexibility.

3. Keep a light touch on the handrails. With cardio machines like treadmills and the elliptical trainer, keep your hands resting lightly on the handrails, not with a death-grip on the rails. A clinging, hunched position will cause an improper spine alignment which can be jarring to your shoulders and elbows. If you need to hang on for your life, the setting is probably too high.

4. Cross Train. Mixing it up by regularly switching from one activity to another has many benefits over doing the same routine. It prevents mental burnout and since different activities target slightly different muscle groups, the result is a more comprehensive conditioning.

5. Focus on muscle groups, not individual muscles. People get hurt when they put too much emphasis on one muscle, e.g. getting huge biceps or lats. A better approach is to target more of your arms or shoulders with moves like the chest press or back row. The best exercises are those that work several muscles at the same time because they build functional strength. Wait at least 48 hours before working the same muscle group again.

6. Pay attention to your shoes. If you play a sport more than three times a week, get the right shoes for that activity. For example, running shoes are designed to put your foot and leg into the best position to propel you forward. If they are worn for activities with a lot of side-to-side movement, it can cause the ankle to roll to the side, with the potential for a sprained or even broken ankle. Cross-training shoes are a better choice for sports like tennis or step classes. Regular exercisers should replace their shoes every 12 months, or at the first signs of wear (running shoes should be replaced every 480 to 800 kilometers).”

7. Accept your limitations. As we age, our bones lose density and strength, our ligaments and tendons stiffen, we lose circulation and in general we become more vulnerable to injury. Keep on going to the gym, but use more caution as you get older to protect your body.

8. Consider hiring a professional. Using a machine incorrectly or putting on too much resistance is cause for concern and potential injury. Use the mirrors, if available, to monitor your form and technique. Also consider signing up with a personal trainer, even for just a couple of sessions, for some sensible tips for injury-free routines.