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How to Avoid Injury When Exercising at Home

Get tips to prevent an achy back, shoulder strain, a sprained ankle and jumper's knee

spinner image Man doing balance exercise in his home
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For most people, exercising during the pandemic has meant exercising at home. What it also has meant, according to fitness trainers and physical therapists: things like strained muscles from warriorlike weightlifting in the basement; sprained ankles from extra-long hikes; and something called “jumper’s knee,” the result of sudden and enthusiastic participation in high-impact exercise video classes. Here, a few common sources of home-workout injuries — and how to avoid them to stay safe and get fit. 

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Potential Pitfall: New moves plus 10 extra pounds

Yes, you need to strength train, but resistance training is one area with a high potential for injury when done incorrectly, according to Morgan Nolte, a doctor of physical therapy, specialist in geriatric physical therapy and owner of Reshape Physical Therapy & Wellness. That’s especially true for anyone just getting started.

In particular, hoisting free weights without following the proper form is a classic recipe for trouble, says K. Aleisha Fetters, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and author of Fitness Hacks for Over 50. Distractions you don’t get at the gym — say, watching the news on TV or juggling loads of laundry — can make matters worse, causing even veterans to get sloppy.

Dani Ticktin Koplik, 65, who heads an executive and leadership coaching firm in New York City, learned this the hard way. Early on during her area’s lockdown, Koplik attempted a new exercise that involved raising a three-pound weight over her chest with one arm while lying on her back, before passing the weight from one hand to the other, overhead. But when she got distracted by a sudden noise in the house, she dropped the weight on her chest. Koplik says she was sore for days.

Just do this: Novices should begin by focusing on form and forgetting about the resistance, according to Nolte. Once you have the basic move down, and practiced it several times, you can start adding a light weight to the equation. And don’t jump to heavier weights until you can perform 15 or so repetitions of a move without feeling at all fatigued.

How to make sure your form is right? The easiest way is to watch yourself in a mirror. “You can see your posture, your form, and course-correct,” says Koplik. No mirror? Any reflective surface, including a shiny framed poster to the webcam on your computer, will do, according to Sami Ahmed, a physical therapist at the Centers for Advanced Orthopaedics.

Potential Pitfall: Failure to prepare

Of course you do the warm-up when attending an exercise class in-person; you’re no slacker. At home? You’re probably more likely to cut to the chase and start getting those pushups out of the way. And you’re not alone in diving right in. “A lot of people are great about warming up when they’re in a gym, but in their living room it never crosses their mind,” says Fetters.

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Just do this: No matter how extraneous it may seem, you need to begin your routines by gently getting your muscles ready to roll — with anything from leg swings to arm circles to walking in place — for a good five to 10 minutes. Doing so keeps muscles less prone to strain and pain, and also gradually raises your heart rate. The time to stretch is after your workout is over, when your muscles are pliable, Nolte says. 

Potential Pitfall: Going (too) long

While extended workouts are a good use of extra time around the house, you need to work up to something like doubling the duration of a jog or yoga session. Ahmed points to a client who, with plenty of time on his hands, went from hiking once a month on flat terrain to daily treks with lots of inclines, and promptly sprained his ankle. Other clients have turned to running during the lockdown — and ended up with swollen knees, strained calves and hip pain when they try to up the mileage too fast. 

Just do this: To avoid injury or fend off the delayed-onset muscle soreness that typically emerges 24 to 48 hours after a workout, wait for any tenderness to subside, then reintroduce your run or workout at a lower intensity, Ahmed advises. Instead of trying to up your mileage day after day, you may need to stick to shorter distances — with brief bursts of intensity built in. This can help stave off wear and tear on your hips and knees.

Potential Pitfall: Assuming something is easy

Some exercises can be more challenging than they appear in a photo or video, as Una Murray, 62, a retired administrator in Pelham, N.Y., recently discovered. Accustomed to regular workouts with a personal trainer, she figured the 30-minute at-home workout she found in a magazine would be easy enough to knock out.

Unfortunately, one move involved what she describes as a “Rockettes-style” kick, which she performed suddenly and vigorously, leading to excruciating lower body pain. Via a FaceTime session, her trainer suggested she had injured her piriformis, a muscle that helps the hip rotate, and recommended a program of stretches. A month after the initial injury, however, “It’s still tender,” she says.

Just do this: Start working at a lower intensity than you think you can be at, advises Fetters. If you feel OK, then you can slowly take it up a notch. “Aim to end each workout feeling better than when you started,” says Fetters.

Potential Pitfall: Ignoring pain

Determined to stay fit, novices and fitness veterans alike will sometimes try to ignore how much a movement hurts. But that’s a recipe for injury, especially after a certain age — and doubly so for exercises likely to exacerbate existing conditions, such as lower back pain. “A lot of people are moving too quickly, too fast,” Ahmed says.

Just do this: Pay attention to any sudden twinges. “Listen to your body,” says Fetters. “Pain is your body’s way of telling you to stop.” In general, keep going until you’re fatigued. But if you feel a sudden pain, stop.

You also can swap movements that are likely to exacerbate certain problems for alternatives. For example, when doing yoga, if a pose is uncomfortable try a substitute. Do you have a history of knee pain? Instead of Pigeon Pose, a potential alternative is Happy Baby, which also opens up the hips without putting too much pressure on the knee, Fetters notes.

You may also need to swap one type of exercise for another — say, higher-impact jogging for lower-impact biking. Alternating different types of exercise can also help save aging knees or strengthen muscles to make your preferred exercise less painful on the days you do it.

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