Increase Your Fitness (while Avoiding Injury & Pain) with These Easy-to-Implement Suggestions

As a physical therapist, I treat patients with a variety of orthopedic injuries and complaints. Low back pain, shoulder pain, knee pain are the most common, but I also see several patients with foot pain, elbow pain, hip pain, and headaches.

Some patients develop an injury or pain from being too inactive. They work a desk job for 8 hours a day and spend the majority of their non-work time sitting as well. For those who are too inactive, muscles weaken and joints get stiff which eventually leads to injury and pain. Not good!

I also see patients in physical therapy who exercise very regularly. Some of them intensely. Repetitive exercise and activity can lead to soft tissue break down, overuse injuries, sprains, and strains. This isn’t good either!

So how can a person best balance exercise, activity and rest in a way that keeps the body strong and injury-resilient – as well as allow for soft tissue recovery to reduce the probability of overuse injuries?

Achieving a balance of exercise and rest will reduce the likelihood of injury. Exercising in a variety of ways is my suggestion for maximizing fitness while reducing the likelihood of injury.

When you are active in a variety of different ways, you strengthen and stretch different muscles and no one muscle gets overworked in a way that can lead to overuse injury.

Most of the patients I see in physical therapy who are injured and are already doing a good job of staying active have one thing in common. They only exercise in one way. Sometimes it’s running. Sometimes it’s yoga. Sometimes it’s group fitness classes. They choose one thing and do it 3-5 times a week because it may be the one thing they love or the one thing they are good at. It may be the one thing that gives them that exercise “high” or the one thing they know how to do correctly. It may be the one thing that’s most convenient for them.

My philosophy is it’s always better to do something as opposed to nothing when it comes to exercise, but if you are only doing one thing you are more than likely going to develop muscle imbalances that can lead to injury.

A prime example of this is running and knee pain. A runner that develops knee pain is likely to think, “well all of that pounding must have worn down my knee joints”. This may be the case, but more than likely the running with no added stretching or lifting has led to a weak core, weak glutes, and tight hip flexors – which are the actual cause of the knee pain.

The goal is to exercise with as much variety as possible, to increase fitness and reduce the risk of injury.

There are many more aspects of fitness than one would think. When most of us think about fitness we think about cardio. This stems from common doctor recommendations. “Get 30 minutes of cardio per day to keep your heart healthy.” This is a great recommendation but there are many ways to increase the heart rate and get a cardio workout besides walking, running and biking. Other important aspects of fitness –besides cardio– are strength (core, upper body, lower body), flexibility/mobility, balance, agility, power, and endurance. That’s a lot! How can anyone with a life outside of the gym possibly balance all of these fitness categories? I’m not saying it’s easy but I do believe it’s possible and a great goal for everyone to strive for.

Here are my suggestions for building variety into your fitness routine:

Circuit training: Did you know that if you lift weights fast you will build strength AND elevate your heart rate into a cardio zone? BAM! Two for one. There are countless examples of circuit training that can be found online. Some of these can be performed at home with no equipment and some can be performed with weights or machines at the gym. Circuit training is a great way to get some of the higher intensity fitness activities in because you can do short bursts of higher intensity power and agility movements. HIIT training has become very popular in recent years and is a great way to exercise with variety.

Warm up and cool down: I know you want to squeeze in every last calorie burn you can into that 30 minutes you have available to exercise but trust me. Sacrificing 5 minutes for a warm-up and 5 minutes for a cool down will pay off in the long term with injury prevention. And as a bonus, you can squeeze a lot of fitness into your warm-up and cool down. My warm-up consists of balance, agility and core strength. My cool down incorporates flexibility and mobility.

Periodization: If you don’t like doing something different every day for exercise then spend 6 weeks doing one thing as your main workout 3-5 days a week and then spend the next 6 weeks doing something completely different. Switch it up every 6 weeks. Spinning, water aerobics, martial arts, Pilates. There are so many different ways to exercise and be active. This pattern gives you variety and challenges your body and mind in new and different ways!

Recovery: Allow 1-2 days of recovery after intense workout days. A recovery day might be a day of no exercise or it might be what we call “active recovery”, which is performing something active but light like walking, weeding, stretching or a floor core strength routine. Meditation is also something great to do on a recovery day. Don’t forget about fitness of the mind!

Start gradually: If you are not active at all you want to start building your tolerance for exercise gradually. Doing too much too quickly is another common cause of injury. Make small goals and progress them every week or every month. A goal of spending less time sitting is a great place to start.

Get professional help: I highly recommend consulting with a personal trainer. They can help you develop a personalized fitness plan and make sure you are doing movements correctly and safely. They also make sure you’re working in a variety of movements and exercises that will challenge you, avoid imbalances, and will help you reach your overall goals. Here at Performance Health & Fitness, we have some clients that work with a personal trainer for several years, while others only need 1-2 months for help getting started.

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I am always working to improve my workout frequency, intensity, and variety. With three kids and a full-time job, it’s very challenging to fit everything in. Exercise and other self-care are often the last priority on the to-do list and don’t always get done. Recently, I’ve been better about planning ahead to get my workouts in and get as much variety as possible. Here’s what my current weekly exercise routine looks like:

Monday: 1-hour gym workout including dynamic warm-up for flexibility and balance, barbell lower extremity exercises for strength and power, upper back exercise for posture strength, HIIT for cardio, cool-down consisting of foam rolling, stretching and core strength.

Tuesday: 30-minute yoga session at home for flexibility, strength, and relaxation – or a 30-minute jog outdoors if the weather is nice.

Wednesday: 45-minute Taekwondo class for strength, balance, flexibility, power and training my mind to learn something new!

Thursday: Rest day or 10-minute floor core routine at home.

Friday: Rest day or 20-minute gym workout or Taekwondo.

Saturday: Light cleaning at home, running errands.

Sunday: 2-hours playing pickleball (winter), 30-minute jog (summer).

It’s a work in progress and I don’t follow it perfectly every week but this routine is better than the sporadic exercise I have been getting the past few years. Strive for progress, not perfection. 🙂

I hope this article inspires you to include more variety in your fitness routine!

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