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Spring into Sports - Safely

April 30, 2024

An athletic young woman prepares for exercise.

As it warms up here on the East Coast, many of us are taking advantage of the nice weather and becoming more active.

Whether you’re hitting the gym, going out for a run, or heading to the local pickleball court, it’s a good idea to take precautions to lower your risk of injury — especially if you’ve been less active this winter.

Timothy O’Sullivan, MD, a fellowship-trained sports medicine physiatrist with Atlantic Health System, offers his top six tips for staying safe while exercising.

Types of Exercise

Exercises can be aerobic (such as walking, jogging and swimming), muscle-building and bone-strengthening (think weightlifting and plyometrics or jumping), balance-improving (like single-leg exercises) or flexibility-focused (like yoga).

Exercise types can also overlap, falling into more than one category. An example of this is sprinting, which is both aerobic and muscle-building.

How Should I Exercise?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends adults get 150 total minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity and two or more days of muscle-strengthening activity per week.

To understand what that means, it’s helpful to understand the three components of exercise: Intensity, frequency and duration.Intensity is how hard you’re working while exercising. There are three levels of intensity.

  • Mild or light (things like slow walking and doing household chores)
  • Moderate (things like brisk walking and raking the yard)
  • Vigorous (things like running or shoveling snow)

Frequency is how often you exercise (the number of times per week).

  • Frequency can also be the number of repetitions (reps) or sets of an exercise you perform.

Duration is how long you exercise during one session.

If 150 minutes a week sounds daunting, know that any amount of exercise is beneficial.

“Exercise is not an all-or-nothing game,” says Dr. O’Sullivan. “The science shows that some exercise is better than none. If you can’t find 30 minutes five times a week, do what you can. Even 10 minutes has positive effects on your physical and mental health.”

Potential Risks

First, it’s important to note that exercise is safe and healthy for just about everyone — including kids, teens, adults, older adults, pregnant people and people with chronic illnesses and physical or other challenges.

Exercise offers both immediate and long-term physical and mental health benefits — everything from improved cardiovascular and bone health, sleep quality and cognition to reduced pain, depression and risk for chronic disease. Exercise has even been shown to lower the risk for all-cause mortality, including cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes and certain cancers.

That said, exercise is not risk-free.

Musculoskeletal injuries affecting your bones, joints, ligaments and tendons can occur, especially when starting out. Think: sprains, strains and fractures. Cardiovascular events such as heart attacks may also be a concern, depending on your current health status.

“Always consult your doctor before starting a new exercise program, especially if you have an existing chronic health condition or haven’t been active in a while,” advises Dr. O’Sullivan.

Strategies for Exercising Safely

Once you understand your risk, Dr. O’Sullivan offers the following tips for exercising safely:

  1. Start low (intensity) and slow (shorter duration of time).
  2. Gradually increase duration (time) and frequency before intensity.
    1. A good rule of thumb is to increase time and intensity by 10% each week.
  3. Always warm up before beginning.
    1. Stretch, take a light jog or use resistance bands to prepare your body, increasing blood flow and heart rate.
  4. Wear appropriate clothing and use the right gear/equipment.
    1. Make sure protective gear such as a bike helmet fits properly and is in good condition.
    2. Replace running sneakers after around 350 miles to reduce your risk of injury which can occur due to worn out cushioning or uneven wearing of the soles.
  5. Make sure your (outdoor) environment is safe.
    1. Keep the area well lit and well maintained.
    2. Opt for a softer, shock-absorbing surface like a track to lessen the impact on your knees.
    3. If on a road, make sure there’s enough space between you and oncoming traffic.
    4. Be mindful of the weather.
      1. Avoid exercising in extreme heat or cold.
      2. Dress appropriately.
      3. Wear sunscreen and find shade
      4. Check air quality index and pollution levels.
  6. Stay hydrated and listen to your body.
    1. Take breaks as needed.
    2. Drink your water.

NOTE: For pregnant people, Dr. O’Sullivan says to follow your obstetrician-gynecologist’s guidelines. For older people and those with arthritis, he suggests sticking with lower-impact exercises like swimming that are easier on joints. He also suggests practicing yoga and Tai Chi to improve balance and further reduce your risk of falling.

Key Takeaways

Exercise is safe and healthy for nearly everyone, regardless of age, gender, race, ability and health status, and the benefits outweigh any risk of injury.

“As long as you start slow and talk to your doctor to understand what’s safe for you, exercising is the best thing you can do to improve your health,” Dr. O’Sullivan says.

Be Proactive About Your Health

To stay safe and healthy, it's good to have a primary care provider who knows and understands your health history and wellness goals.

  • Healthy Living