Over the past couple of months, we have discussed the all-encompassing benefits of a healthy diet and exercise. As the year comes to a close, think it is now time to take a look at the darker side of things.
A primary concern while exercising is that of injuring oneself. This has been discussed in several previous articles on running, weightlifting, using kettle bells, etc. Let’s address all of these in one place.
Nearly half the people who run regularly end up injuring themselves over the course of a year. These injuries can be anywhere - feet, ankles, knees, hips, back or neck. There is also the risk of road traffic accidents if one is running on the roadside instead of on a track or in a park.
Herein lies the importance of a coach - to learn the proper stance, develop the right stepping, using the right footwear for individual needs, and most importantly-the right way to stretch fatigued muscles. Most injuries can be prevented by these, and doing proper warm up and cool down, which are essential for any strenuous exercise.
Another common concern is that of a sudden cardiac arrest during or immediately after a long run. This has also been discussed at length earlier. To reiterate, in healthy and fit individuals who exercise regularly, the risk of such an unfortunate accident is very low, and rises only to a very minor extent while exercising. Conversely, regular exercise significantly lowers the risk of sudden collapse during the rest of the day (a risk which is much higher in sedentary individuals). It’s important to be aware of this. This is also why it’s recommended that any person starting on a strenuous exercise program, especially after the age of 30, undergo a medical check-up prior to beginning. Notably, males are much more likely than females to suffer such events.
One is also prone to injury while weightlifting, though surprisingly, less so than running. However, trainees often suffer muscle pulls, which need time to heal, and muscle soreness and stiffness, which are mostly benign and self-limiting. One needs to differentiate between muscle soreness occurring soon after unaccustomed or heavier exercise, delayed onset muscle soreness and muscle pulls or worse still, tears. While the first two will settle with appropriate rest and decrease (but not disappear) with experience, muscle pulls may need physiotherapy and avoidance of exercises stressing the injured muscles till they heal. However, some soreness is normal after a heavy bout of exercise, and the muscle need not be avoided unless the situation worsens.
Muscle tears need professional opinion from an orthopaedic surgeon or ideally a sports medicine specialist. Even more important is to find out why the muscle was injured - was it was due to an improper technique, or inappropriately high weights? Needless to say, that the predisposing factors need to be addressed. Proper training for learning techniques is even more important for exercising with kettle bells, as rapid, jerky movements with a weight are more likely to cause injury.
Resistance training mandates following proper exercise techniques, and realising that slow and steady is the only way to gain. It’s been said that we overestimate what we can achieve in a year, but underestimate what we can in a decade. This is particularly true for weightlifting. Growing from 30s to 50s, a feeling of improving youth and fitness that is imparted is a most satisfying reward. The ancillary benefits of sticking to lifting heavy weights regularly are many, not least of which is developing an iron will to persist in the face of adversity.
One is usually prepared for pain and injury when initiating an exercise program; it’s the desire for rapid progress and unrealistic goals that causes greater harm. After the initial honeymoon period of rapid increase in strength and fitness, one reaches a plateau within 3-6 months of regular exercise, depending upon one’s initial fitness levels. At this stage, a coach is most crucial in guiding a trainee regarding programming-a term signifying taking a couple of steps back before moving 3 steps ahead. Even so, progress is slow and hard to find. The obvious solution at this stage is shortcuts: the use of supplements and/or drugs to augment performance.
These have been in use for decades now: Arnold Schwarzenegger was candid enough to admit that in his time, they used drugs to boost performance as they didn’t know better. However, others like legendary cyclist Lance Armstrong admitted to using them with full knowledge, managing to fool authorities for years, before finally coming clean a few years back. It’s important to understand supplements for what they are, along with their long-term consequences.
Whey protein is safe upto reasonable limits - 30-40 g per day can be easily digested and tolerated by a healthy young athlete aiming to fulfil her protein requirements. Other safe products include multi-vitamins and some minerals within recommended doses. Limited amount of creatine and glutamine powders may enhance strength and hasten recovery, respectively, and may be consumed under medical supervision. However, these are expensive and often come from unreliable sources.
Nothing beats a healthy diet, regular exercise and a solid will, as far as a normal adult aiming for fitness is concerned.
Steroids and other performance boosting drugs are a strict NO-NO; these harm the body in numerous ways and people might suffer lasting consequences for years even after giving them up. Youth in their pursuit of strength or a six-pack should not get carried away. They should persevere with their efforts and avoid taking short cuts - an endeavour that is fraught with permanent risks.
In summary, exercise is a life-changing endeavour, with multifarious benefits. It has to be a lifestyle change, rather than a compulsion and should not be muddied with drugs or supplements for rapid gains.
This is a recurring column published every Sunday under the title: A Guide to Exercise.
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