Exercise has many benefits: It lowers the risk of heart attack, cancer, and depression, boosts energy levels, helps you think clearer, and may even slow down the aging process. So it seems like a smart and healthy choice to slip a regular exercise routine into your schedule, right?
You get on the treadmill, push the speed up as high as you can stand, may be even add some elevation, and go for 30, 40, or 50 minutes. When you’re done, you feel good knowing you can cross exercising off your to-do list. But looking at exercise as simply a task that needs to be done, or worrying to much about losing weight and clocking a 7-minute mile, can actually harm your health, rather than make you healthier. “It’s definitely possible to go about exercise in the wrong way where it can hurt you,” Christopher Wahl, MD, chief of sports medicine at the University of California, San Diego department of orthopedic surgery, told Everyday Health. And while we don’t want to lose sight of the fact that “people who exercise do better than people who don’t exercise,” Carl Lavie, MD, the medical director of cardiac rehabilitation and preventive care at Ochsner Health System in New Orleans, told WebMd, moderation is key.
So, take the time to analyze your workout routine, and see if it needs a healthy adjustment. Here are seven ways it might be hurting your health.
1. You forget to stretch and don’t warm up
It is easy to skip the warm up, especially when it comes to stretching. If you only have a lunch break to sneak in some cardio, it may feel like warming up is a waste of valuable time. But taking the time to make sure your muscles are warm and limber is essential to avoiding injury. Even if it doesn’t necessarily ensure you won’t be sore the next day, around 10 minutes of stretching will alleviate aches and pains that will otherwise dramatically lengthen your recovery time. How exactly does this work? Stretching actually accelerates the speed at which your body repairs muscles. Remember, “muscles are made up of small strands of tissue called fascicle, which themselves are composed of a whole bunch of other smaller components,” AskMen explains. After a workout, when the body has to repair muscles, entangled muscle fibers impede the recovery process. Stretching makes these strands of tissue more elastic and supple, which in turn, prevents injury and increases flexibility.
Not all stretching is created equal. As children, we’re taught that touching our toes for a count of ten qualifies. Not to discount a good a toe-touch, but static stretching is very limited. Experts recommend opting for mobility preparation instead of simply stretching. Kelly Starrett, a former elite-level athlete, told the Huffington Post that static stretching should be replaced with “movement-based integrated full-body approach, which addresses all the elements that limit movement and performance.”
Post-workout you may want to give yourself a foam-roller massage to reduce muscle tension to alleviate any muscle pain or tightness. “Foam rolling breaks up scar tissue and knotting in your fascia, which — if left unattended — can lead to nagging aches and pains in your joints,” BJ Gaddour, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and owner of StreamFit.com, told Men’s Fitness.
2. You don’t refuel
This entry is the subject of debate in the fitness community. On one hand, it is important to give your body the nutrients it needs to repair muscles and replenish your muscle’s energy stores. It is also true that you don’t want to rush off to happy hour or a work meeting on an empty stomach. But making sure you have a recovery snack that fits the three-to-one ration of carbohydrates to protein, as many commercial recovery foods boast as optimal, is not always necessary. Furthermore, “too many athletes are obsessed with rapidly refueling the minute they stop exercising,” Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist Nancy Clark, noted in a post for Active.com. But actually, muscles can replenish glycogen stores within 24 hours of a workout. It is also important to bear in mind that if your workout was not energy-depleting, you don’t have to worry about refueling.
“Marketers have done a bang-up job of convincing everybody that refueling is necessary every time you move,” Yoni Freedhoff, an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa, told the Washington Post.
3. You stay in your sweat-soaked clothes too long
Sometimes this one is hard to avoid. I know I’ve forgotten to bring an essential item with me to the gym, making it so that I couldn’t change. But doing that comes with a price: Your workout clothes take on that perma-sweat odor and you can develop body acne.
4. You don’t drink enough water
Working out means sweating, which means dehydration. Dehydration comes with a huge cost; fatigue, cramps, and mood swings are caused by not drinking enough water while working out, especially under the hot sun. It is impotant to pay attention to your dry mouth, any sensations of lightheadedness, an irregular heartbeat, muscle cramps, and orange-tinted urine, as Men’s Fitness notes.
According to the Institute of Medicine, men should drink 3.7 liters, or approximately 13 cups, of liquid a day — but that figure is just a baseline. When you exercise in hot and humid weather, you will need to drink more fluid. And if you get tired of plain water, water-dense fruits and vegetables, including celery, cucumbers, and melon, also work as sources of hydration.
5. You just do cardio
Running really isn’t the best exercise, especially if you don’t vary speed or incline throughout your workout. Just running can be detrimental to the body, and you need more variation if you want to lose weight.
Cardio exercise offers many health benefits, such as reducing your risk for chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes by reducing blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels. Cardio exercise also burns extra calories, which helps keep body fat levels down; however, limiting yourself to just cardio exercise with no strength training can prevent you from achieving optimal health and the body you desire. Although it is not bad to do just cardio, it is not ideal.
Strength training is the missing piece of the puzzle; it increases your metabolism so that more calories are burned throughout the day, while cardio burns off both fat and muscle.
6. You push yourself too hard
“Healthier exercise patterns involve not such extreme duration or intensity,” researcher James H. O’Keefe, MD, director of preventive cardiology at the Mid America Heart Institute at St. Luke’s Health System in Kansas City, told WebMD. Studies have shown that running at a moderate pace lowers the risk of death from any cause, when compared with no running, and that increasing speed brings no additional benefits. Over the course of a lifetime, high impact activity can hurt joints and “chronic training” for endurance events can even cause dilation and stretching of the hearts chambers, according to WebMD.
One solution is substituting high-intensity exercises with isometrics — a type of strength training that builds muscle by pitting one muscle or part of the body against another.
7. You listen to music too loud
Gyms, workout classes, and even apps use music to push your workout to the next level. Scientific American reported in 2013: “Music distracts people from pain and fatigue, elevates mood, increases endurance, reduces perceived effort and may even promote metabolic efficiency. When listening to music, people run farther, bike longer and swim faster than usual—often without realizing it.”
Smartphone apps such as Songza recommend songs as fast as 180 beats per minute for a seven-minute mile. “But the most recent research suggests that a ceiling effect occurs around 145 bpm: anything higher does not seem to contribute much additional motivation.”
All you have to worry about is volume, especially if you are using headphones. “Loud rock music contributed to hearing loss among baby boomers, but MP3 players are poised to make the problem much worse for the next generation,” notes WebMD.
Follow Meghan on Twitter @MFoley_WSCS