When All That Exercise May Not Be Good For You

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So you’ve realised it’s time to ‘ get fit’ – you’ve enrolled in the local gym or hired a personal trainer to motivate and push you along. It’s hard work – your joints ache and you’ve developed these new pains – but you’re sticking with it. You’re told ’no pain no gain’ so you press on, dreaming that one day you may get to look like Brad Pitt or Elle McPherson.

Unfortunately, in our musculoskeletal physiotherapy clinic we see patients every day whose problems have been caused or exacerbated by poorly devised and administered exercise programmes.

We have all heard the message that we need to do more exercise and there is no doubt we do. Most of us have sedentary occupations and leisure activities, and obesity and heart disease are growing problems.

However the kind of exercise you are doing may in fact be doing more harm than good.

More importantly, what sort of exercise is right for your body’s particular needs?

In the past few years there has been an explosion of fitness trainers and gyms. Their marketing has successfully sold the notion that to be fit and look good, the answer is ‘stretch’ and ‘strength’ and ‘muscle toning’ programs involving lots of effort and end gaining.

Unfortunately, the science of functionally useful and appropriate exercise is still in its relative infancy. While research in this area is beginning to provide some answers, to date these represent dots on the map of our understanding.

Some of the available research has also been misinterpreted. This risks leaving the door open to entrepreneurs peddling exercise fads – a ‘one size fits all’ approach. Often ‘core stability’ or ‘Pilates programmes’ (and even yoga classes!) are offered within gyms; and while they are valid disciplines in their own right, they too can become part of a clever marketing exercise with poor quality control in delivery.

Trying harder is not always the answer

Complaints of pain often lead to the suggestion that you stretch more or try harder. The problem increases and often the trainer doesn’t really understand what he is trying to help you ‘fix’. How can he – when you consider how relatively short and limited his ‘rehabilitation training’ has probably been.

Considerable training and experience are necessary to be able to diagnose the particular needs of each person and prescribe and supervise appropriate safe exercise protocols.

While most people will benefit from a general increase in activity levels and fitness, there is an ‘at risk’ group within the community who find this approach does not help and they develop new pains and ailments or make existing ones worse.

These problems are usually passed off as ‘overdoing it’ or ‘old age’ rather than being better understood as probably stemming from the reinforcement of patterns of imbalanced muscle activity around a body already teetering on the edge of substandard muscle control.

When people have aches, pains, tightness and stiffness we usually find there is a related problem of inefficient muscle control. This is often the result of ‘bad habits’ in the way we move. Learning to build the correct basic patterns of control is important in providing more sound foundations to support all more active forms of exercise – actually a case of needing to work smarter rather than harder!

Helping not harming

So ask yourself, have you ‘lost your bounce’ or do you feel ‘weak’, ‘tired all the time’ and ‘old’? Have you wondered why your back has become sore; why so many in your gym have developed knee pain or ‘rotator cuff’ problems of the shoulder; why your hip pain has re-emerged or why your neck and shoulders feel stiff? Do you constantly feel stiff and feel the need to stretch all the time?

You need to ensure that the exercise you do is not harming, but rather helping you.

Assessment from a suitably qualified musculoskeletal physiotherapist can help to diagnose and address the problem with any malfunction of your joints and muscles that may be contributing to or causing your pain. Your present program may need modifying or it may be better to apply a different approach altogether.

Exercise is vital to health and wellbeing, but make sure what you are doing is safe and appropriate. If the muscles of the body are used in a proper balanced way, you look good, you feel good, have plenty of energy and suppleness, and control and strength naturally occur. And you don’t have pain.