Exercise is so good for you that its benefits almost always outweigh any risks. But exercise injuries can happen. Here’s why, and how to avoid trouble.
More than 40 million Americans run regularly. Running is great for the heart and lungs, but it can be hard on your lower body. The most common complaint among runners is knee pain. Discomfort near the kneecap is usually a sign patellofemoral pain syndrome, which can flare up after you’ve been going up and down stairs or hills. Iliotibial band syndrome causes pain on the outside of the knee, radiating up the outer side of the thigh up to the hip.
Shin splints are also common to runners, especially beginning runners. And, not surprisingly, your feet also take a pounding. Plantar fasciitis, or inflammation of the connective tissue of the sole, causes pain on the bottom of the foot or the heel. Achilles tendinitis, or inflammation of the Achilles tendon, shows up as pain along the heel at the back of the ankle. Some runners experience neuroma—tingling, numbness, or pain in a nerve near the base of the toes.
Fortunately, you can lower your risk of these problems by following a few simple guidelines when you run.
- If you plan to increase your speed or distance, ramp up slowly. Overexertion is the culprit behind many running-related injuries.
- Wear comfortable running or walking shoes with good support. Replace them when they show signs of wear.
- Take rest days between runs when possible.
- Avoid concrete or rough road surfaces, which increase the impact on joints. Dirt and grass are safer choices.
- Avoid hills if you’re prone to knee or ankle strains.
One in three people who exercise say their favorite choice is walking. Walking is easier on joints than running. Still, some of the problems that afflict runners can also walkers—including plantar fasciitis, stress fractures, tendinitis, neuroma, and lower back pain. You can avoid many of these problems by pacing yourself.
- Increase your walking speed or distance gradually.
- Avoid rough surfaces and steep hills, especially if you have joint pain or stiffness.
- Watch where you’re going! Researchers at Ohio State University reported a worrisome increase in injuries related to “distracted walking”—usually when people are talking on cell phones and accidently walk into poles or traffic.
Resistance training and weight lifting injuries
Weight training is now the second most popular form of exercise, surveys show. Unfortunately, injuries from weight lifting are also on the rise. Among the most common problems: shoulder and elbow strains, including rotator cuff strain and tendinitis. A 2015 study by researchers at Tufts Medical Center in Boston found that weight lifters might also have a heightened risk of developing knee arthritis over time. But the most common injury? From dropped weights.
With a little extra care, you can keep your resistance training workouts safe:
- Start with easy weights and increase the amount of weight or resistance very gradually.
- Lift weights with a partner who can spot you.
- Double-check that weights are properly secured.
- When standing, keep your legs shoulder-width apart for stability.
- Consider using weight-training machines, which are less prone to causing injury than free weights.
- Rest between sets.
Swimming is a great way to exercise without putting strain on your joints and bones. The most common swimming-related problem is swimmer’s ear, or acute diffuse otitis externa. This infection causes itching, pain, and inflammation and can even lead to temporary hearing loss. Swimmer’s ear occurs from persistent moisture in the ear canal, allowing bacteria or fungus to grow.
To avoid swimmer’s ear:
- Use earplugs when swimming.
- Dry your ears with a dry towel or hair dryer. (Don’t use cotton swabs, either to dry your ears or to remove earwax, called cerumen. They can pack wax and dirt into your ear and irritate the skin.)
- A certain amount of earwax is normal and even desirable because cerumen fights bacteria and fungi in the ear. If you have earwax buildup that impairs your hearing or is uncomfortable, have your ears cleaned periodically by your doctor or an otolaryngologist.
Biking and spinning injuries
For recreational bicyclists, the most serious cause of injury is accidents, especially collisions between a bike and a car. The faster you ride, the greater the risk, according to a study of bicycle accidents in Seattle. The data showed that children under six and adults over 39 were most likely to suffer accidents.
Besides accidents, the most common cycling complaints are overuse injuries. Although riding is generally low impact, it is very repetitive. A cyclist can average 5000 pedal revolutions in a single hour. So it’s not surprising that knee pain and stiffness are among the most common complaints. But almost any part of the body can be affected. Long-distance cyclists may develop pain or numbness in their hands or wrists from carpal tunnel syndrome or cyclist’s palsy. Riding in the same position for extended periods can also cause neck, shoulder, or back pain.
One unusual risk that cyclists face is numbness or pain in the groin area. This groin pain is caused by compression of nerves and blood vessels from sitting for long stretches on a bicycle seat—and the problem can even lead to erectile dysfunction and, rarely, infertility in male riders. According to a 2010 report by Italian researchers, the incidence of erection problems may be as high as 24 percent among serious cyclists.
To avoid cycling injuries:
- Ride with your elbows slightly bent to absorb shocks.
- Choose a comfortable seat with ample cushioning.
- Change your hand positions from time to time to prevent numbness.
- Wear cushioned riding gloves to minimize stress.
- Wear comfortable riding shoes.
- Always wear a helmet. A Canadian study published in 2012 found that bicyclists who don’t wear helmets have more than three times higher risk of a fatal head injury.
Yoga is one of the safest forms of exercise around. Less than 1 percent of people who do yoga report injuries serious enough to discontinue—and only one-third of those seek medical care. But that doesn’t mean you can’t run into trouble. The most common complaint is lower back pain, followed by a strained shoulder, wrist, hand, or knee.
To avoid problems on the yoga mat:
- Work with a skilled instructor.
- Go easy. If you have a pre-existing injury or sensitive joint, take care not to put too much stress on it. A skilled yoga instructor should be able to recommend alternative poses.
- Use a yoga mat that provides plenty of cushion and support.