January is a time for reflection, detox and starting fresh. I often start the New Year optimistic at the idea of becoming the healthiest and fittest version of myself. Previously, I would take on too much and either become run down or unable to keep up with so many commitments. I would realise that my intentions were too ambitious. What I’ve learned is that health and fitness is about balance and that to get there, you must be patient, progress slowly, listen to your body and give time for rest and recovery. It is about understanding that quality really is more important than quantity.
Every year I see people in a similar situation. And it’s the burn out and injury that usually brings people to our physiotherapy clinic. Whether after joining a gym, exercise class or committing to going to a daily run with a friend… If the change in activity level is sudden and too great the body won’t like it. Tissues that become overloaded will break down and become injured. While the intention was brilliant, the result can be disastrous leading to many individuals being forced to stop and fearful of return to exercise in case of re-injury. This leads to loss of confidence and parking of good intentions until the following year. In the meantime, fitness levels reduce even further and injuries become long-standing if not rehabilitated properly.
How to avoid burnout and injury:
Educate yourself - People often tell me that they don’t know where to start. Or they ask whether cardio or strength exercise is best. There are some brilliant resources online (and some not so good ones too). The truth is that we need both cardiovascular and strength exercise in our routine. To be specific we need a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate intensity cardiovascular exercise per week or approximately 30 minutes per day (double for children). We also should do strength exercise at least twice per week. These guidelines are based on basic health requirements, not weight loss or body sculpting. Here are some useful resources:
Balance - I am a big believer in balance and variety. A brilliant way to avoid injury is to not overload the same muscle groups every time you train. A balanced week might include a mix of walking, cycling, swimming, dancing, lifting weights, Pilates and Yoga (this may vary if there are specific sporting goals). Pilates and Yoga are excellent for using all muscle groups and improving flexibility, strength and body awareness, thus reducing the risk of injury. Variety also prevents repetition and boredom. Research shows that a big predictor of consistency with exercise is enjoyment - so try to find something that’s fun for you!
Pace yourself - Start slowly and take baby steps. For example, if you haven’t run in a while, then start by walking, then walk-jog-walk, then jog. 30 minutes of exercise can be built up in 10 minute blocks which might be easier than starting with 30 minutes exercise in one session. If you want to try strength exercise, first start by using no weights, focussing on technique and then when you feel you can do the movements easily, start to add small weights and gradually increase.
Work with a trainer - If you're still unsure where to start or how to pace yourself, or you have difficulty motivating yourself week on week, then working with a trainer is an excellent way to ensure that you stay on track. A good trainer will watch your technique, advise you when to increase the intensity of your workout or when you should rest.
Don’t ignore injury - Whether you experience a niggle or full-blown injury, visit a health professional for expert care. The chances are that if you ignore it, it will linger on longer than is necessary and you may end up discontinuing your training completely. With appropriate treatment and rehabilitation you can return to gradual exercise feeling strong and confident and with strategies in place to prevent injury recurring.
Eat, sleep and manage stress - In order to optimise your physical health it’s essential that you are getting the nutrition and sleep that you need. Sleep has the greatest potential to remove free radicals from our body which lead to injury and illness. So if your new training regime means that you need to get out of bed an hour earlier, ensure that you go to bed an hour earlier the night before. Psychological stress is one of the biggest predictors of pain and injury due to the physiological impact it has on our tissues. For some, exercise is a way of managing stress, which is great! But if stress is not dealt with the chances of burnout and injury are much greater.
Be kind to yourself - The reality for most is that life is busy and we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to get it all done. If the exercise plan gets interrupted because life gets in the way, don’t beat yourself up! Don’t give up either! Slow down, accept that you won’t get it all done, but do something. A 15 minute walk or 10 minutes of Pilates at home IS better than nothing.