"Listen to your body" is a cliche as old as the hills. We continue to say it in exercise and training circles. Unfortunately it is a much too general statement to be useful and allows for too many excuses when you don't want to do something.
If used properly you should listen to your body when you have injured yourself or when you are sick or having strange symptoms that you don't understand. Those are times to act - seek medical advice if needed.
When You Are ...
Exercising when you are sick is a judgement call. When you are feeling just a bit off or having a rough day, exercise can help tremendously. I generally draw the line when fighting a fever. For the most part you can exercise even if you are not feeling great and it often helps. Of course if you are having severe/scary symptoms such as chest or arm pain, heart palpitations, weakness on one side of your body etc., you need to get help immediately and do not exercise. Denial can be the biggest killer. People died during COVID because they didn't want to go to the ER for other issues like chest pain. Unfortunately, COVID didn't put a hold on cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes etc.
I recently went to an event, came home and 3 days later was cut to the core with COVID. I did not exercise for 5 days, 4 of which I had a fever over 100 degrees F. My body ached and I was too weak to pick up a dumbbell. Listening to my body was a no-brainer.
No one can tell you what you are feeling. You will have to use your judgement or get professional/knowledgeable help.
If you do have a serious illness for which you are being treated be sure to check with your care provider before you engage in an exercise program. You want to make sure that you adhere to modifications you should make. For example, I have severe Scoliosis. I do special exercises 3x per week for this. However, equally important is what I avoid - no spinal twisting, no standard crunches or anything that involves lifting my neck off of the floor. Bending forward at the hips and ensuring no bending at the waist is important for me. If you suffer from a special condition such as MS, TBI, Neurological deficits, Cerebral Palsy, or anything else, you should always consult with a professional familiar with your condition. There are Personal Trainers who specialize in helping special populations to be as strong and capable/active as possible.
If you have an .....
STOP! when this happens. Thank your body for letting you know that things aren't right. Our bodies usually respond by feeling pain and/or reduced range of motion around a joint or in a muscle or ligament. An injury can be acute or occur gradually over time (overuse).
Note: this post deals with exercise-related injuries.
An acute injury happens suddenly and unexpectedly - you trip, reach in the wrong direction, pick up a heavy weight without bending your knees, pronate your ankle during a run etc. This can occur during our daily lives or during exercise. Often, you will hear a snap, crackle or pop:).
Overuse injuries occur with constant use and reuse of a particular area of the body. For example, a golfer's swing is not one that is used in activities of daily living (ADLs) so professional golfers can experience overuse. Runners can experience an acute injury or chronic overuse injuries. The same can be said for baseball pitchers, tennis players or anyone who participates day after day in the same movement pattern especially if it is not a regularly used movement. I badly sprained my Achilles tendon by doing step aerobics on 3 risers very frequently. The action of going from the bench to the floor (stepping down backwards) is not a normal motion. That was a long hard recovery.
Exercise-Induced Injuries - Causes
Exercise-induced injuries are most commonly caused by improper form, muscle imbalances, inadequate warm-ups and cool-downs (stretching), and overuse. Injury potential increases as you get older and lose muscle mass and balance. If you have not exercised, starting too quickly can also cause injury.
The most important part of any exercise program is to use proper form when performing any routine. Performing exercises improperly won't work the muscle groups intended and frequently leads to injury. If you are new to exercise, I highly recommend you get guidance from a professional trainer or someone knowledgeable who can demonstrate proper form. A picture can help but it is not the same as someone actually helping you get into proper position. Speed of an exercise, number of repetitions of exercises, weight used etc. are all secondary to form. Doing one bicep curl properly for example, is better than doing 15 improperly. If you go to a gym, the trainers can help. However, if you are trying to get started on your own it is critical to get guidance on form.
Muscle imbalances occur when you have used, worked, and/or strengthened a muscle without equally working the opposing muscle. Complimentary muscle groups have been discussed previously but examples include:
Quadriceps and Hamstrings
Biceps and Triceps
Chest and Back
In our ADLs we tend to use our Quadriceps more than our Hamstrings (running is an example) and the same can be said for our Biceps. This provides even more incentive to make sure the hamstrings and triceps get equal attention.
If you have been a couch potato and have now decided to get fit, GOOD FOR YOU! Don't ruin it by starting without a plan and hopefully a coach or trainer. Just 'going out there' can lead to early injury which is discouraging and you will be tempted to quit. Again, if you are starting at a gym, see if they provide one or more free introductory training sessions to get you started properly. If not, it is worth investing in a Personal Trainer at least for a few sessions. I realize not everyone can afford this so once again, reach out if you would like guidance free of charge. No catch, promise!
Adequate Warm-Up and Cool-Down
If you avoid these in order to save time you are not alone. I did for years. It came back to haunt me. It is very worth the extra time to take care of your body so it will take care of you and allow you to remain active well into your senior years.
It is a myth to stretch before you exercise. What you should do is a dynamic warm up - moving while stretching. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warming_up.
Your warm-up up should take 5-10 minutes and involve moving at a sub-max level while engaging muscles and joints that will be used during your exercise session, getting your blood pumping, and beginning to elevate your heart rate. Once you do this, your body is ready to dive in to a more rigorous routine.
Once you complete your workout, cool down by walking or doing a lower intensity routine (can be the dynamic warm-up you used) so that your heart rate has a chance to come down before stretching. Ideally, you should not lower your head below your heart (for example, bending forward) until your heart rate is close to your resting rate. Once you have done this, perform 10 minutes of static stretching for all muscle groups. During exercise your muscles shorten and if they are not stretched back to their pre-exercise form, they will continue to shorten leading to possible injury. Stretches should be static (that is you hold the stretch) for 20-30 seconds each. Stretching should feel great and never cause pain.
What if You do Get Hurt?
It happens to most of us at one point or another in our lives. It is not a standard recommendation to stop exercising when you are injured. For those who are fit and exercise regularly this can be very frustrating but the adage 'work through the pain' is not good advice. If you feel pain or anything abnormal, stop what you are doing and begin the assessment of what is happening.
Our bodies have automatic ways of dealing with injuries to protect us. Inflammation, a feeling of heat, swelling, bruising and pain are all common symptoms of an acute injury. For an overuse injury it may come on more slowly but you can have any or all of these symptoms. For acute injuries, RICE still holds true - rest, ice, compression, elevation. https://www.webmd.com/first-aid/rice-method-injuries. Anti-inflammatory medications such as Alleve and Advil help but only you ( possibly in conjunction with your care provider) can determine if that is appropriate for you. Tylenol helps with pain but is not an anti-inflammatory drug. There are many prescription anti-inflammatory drugs that your healthcare provider can recommend but self-assessment is still critical. Often people who have stomach problems when taking Advil or Alleve find that some of the prescription anti-inflammatories are easier on their GI system. Keep in mind, however, they are still drugs!! Participate in your own health care! Be involved. Don't be an order-taker without researching yourself.
It is important to determine the nature of your injury and how to treat it. Of course, it is a judgement call whether to seek professional care depending on the the level of pain and the loss of function. If you self-treat and the injury doesn't improve or gets worse after a week, it is advisable to seek care from an orthopedist or appropriate professional.
In any case, when it comes to exercising the injured area, your guide should be pain. If you feel pain when doing a particular movement, don't continue. There are so many options for exercising that you can find an activity that allows the injured area to rest while working the rest of the body. Of course, there is a caveat- if the injury requires surgery, your Dr. may disallow exercise for a specified period of time so their advice comes first.
If you injure a lower body part such as your foot, knee, ankle, you may or may not be able to use those areas. Again pain should be your guide. If you are not able to use your lower extremities in standard exercises routines, consider yoga, pilates, barre and chair routines. You can get great workouts with these modalities.
Focus on your upper body. Doing weighted exercise with your arms above your heart will raise your heart rate. Use wrist weights or a weighted vest to increase the intensity. It is harder to raise your heart rate using small muscle groups but it can be done. That is why most cardio routines rely on the large muscles of the Quadriceps/Hamstrings, Glutes, and Core. Maybe you can still do planks which tax the entire Core but may avoid your pain area. They work the whole body.
There is 'no shame in the modifying game' is true for working out when injured. Maybe you can do some of the routines you are used to with modifications.
There are a multitude of programs for working out while injured on youtube and other social media platforms but you must make sure that you trust the person or routine that is guiding you and you must be knowledgeable about what to avoid and how to recover properly.
Getting recommendations from knowledgeable people is always preferable.
The same can be said for injuring your upper body. I recently cut my palm badly and required 12 stitches. I could not do any weight-lifting for about 6 weeks. So, I used my own body weight to work my arms. I did planks on my elbows. I did 20 small forward arm circles, followed by 20 large arm circles, shoulder raises, windshield washers, etc. I held my arms out to the sides and turned my palms to the ceiling. Then I turned them to the ground. I repeated this, going as quickly as comfortable 20 times each way. Repeating this several times works. Your arms feel like lead weights! Whether injured or not, these are great exercises. Using your body to work against gravity is challenging. Try these yourself and see if your upper body is fatigued when finished. It should be.
You can always find a program that works your body while minimizing stress on the injured joint, muscle or tendon. Again, the key is trusting your source or hiring a personal trainer to teach you what to do for a short period of time.
As you recover, return to normal slowly - don't rush it or you may re-injure yourself which is very frustrating.
Humans are both strong and fragile. Our bodies serve us soooo well most of the time. The only control you have is to care for it properly. However, when you have a pothole in the road that you don't see (ok, bad analogy) your car can be damaged. So goes it for your skeleton!