En español | While staying safe at a gym took on a whole new meaning during the pandemic, if you're thinking about getting back to a fitness regimen this summer, you'll be wise to consider the more pedestrian dangers involving treadmills and bench presses — especially if you're over 50.
Exercise-related visits to the ER topped 107,000 for those 50 and older in 2020, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission — and that figure is slightly lower than usual due to fewer people exercising during the pandemic. And speaking of treadmills: Around 20,000 people in the U.S. are treated in emergency rooms for injuries from this piece of equipment alone each year.
"Doing exercises the wrong way can be worse than doing nothing at all,” says Jeremy James, a chiropractor and creator of an at-home fitness program designed for older adults or those with preexisting injuries.
The good news? It's not difficult to stay safe and reap the plentiful health benefits of exercise (which include helping you avoid injuries from falls after 50 by building up leg muscles and improving your balance). You just have to keep your focus and follow a few key tips. Here's your first one: Wear that red safety clip when you're on the treadmill to stop the belt if you start to slip or stumble.
Here are other smart ways to avoid common mistakes that can lead to injuries.
1. Ease into it
It's good to be fired up about working out, but don't let that motivation push you too far, too fast. “Often, people jump right into workouts that are not meant for beginners, and they haven't developed the musculature, particularly core strength,” to do it with proper form, James says. This is especially risky with strength training, where getting sloppy with proper form to squeeze out a certain number of reps can result in injuries such as rotator cuff tears and lower back strain.
James’ advice: “Only use the amount of resistance or weight and number of reps that you can do with perfect form. The last two to three reps should be challenging, but not so challenging you have to break form.”
2. Stop skipping your warm-up
While stretching (the kind you do standing mostly still and flexing a calf or hamstring) can be done at any time during or after your workout, there is no evidence that it helps prevent injuries. What you should do instead? A warm-up.
As opposed to stretching, a warm-up involves movements similar to your workout but done more slowly. “The purpose of a warm-up is to increase blood flow to the muscles, improve tissue elasticity and stimulate the nervous system,” says Lauren Shroyer, a certified trainer and senior director for product development at the American Council on Exercise. “Think of it as slowly accelerating into your workout. A warm-up is important for avoiding injury, especially as we age and our soft tissue becomes less elastic."
That doesn't mean you can skip stretching altogether. Just save it for after your warm-up (when tissues are warm) or the end of your session. Stretching can reduce the buildup of lactic acid in muscle tissue, which contributes to lingering soreness and aches. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends stretching each muscle group for at least 60 seconds.
3. Invest in the right shoes
"There is no shoe that can prevent injuries, but there are definitely plenty that can cause them in the wrong person,” says Matthew Klein, a board-certified orthopedic clinical specialist and founder of Doctors of Running. Shoes that are too narrow up front (the area called the toe box) can hold your feet in positions that may predispose you to a bunion. As you age, the risk of soft tissue injuries that affect areas like the calf and achilles tendon also increases, he adds.
In general, Klein says to look for a shoe that was designed for whatever activity you're planning to do most. Basketball shoes, for example, are designed with side-to-side movements in mind, while running shoes typically are not. Buy from a specialty store where employees have been trained to help guide you (REI is one of the few big-box retailers that does this, Klein says). Because your feet swell as the day goes on, shoe shop in the afternoon or evening for the best fit; you should have half to a full thumb's width between end of toe and end of shoe, he notes.
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Good shoes should feel comfortable the second you put them on, and no matter how silly it feels, you want to take them for a test walk or run in the store. “If something feels off there, it's probably going to feel worse after a couple miles of doing that,” Klein points out.
Most people don't replace their shoes often enough, but the interior components break down after about 100 miles (between four to six months, depending on use), putting you more at risk of developing shin splints. Research has also shown that rotating multiple pairs of shoes lowers your risk of injury.
4. Vary your fitness activities (aka cross-train)
Even if your regular fitness routine is primarily cardio-based, like cycling or walking, you shouldn't skip resistance training. “Strength training is the number one thing anyone over 40 years old should be doing,” Klein says. Strengthening muscles, particularly in your core and lower body, will actually help protect your joints. “Muscles provide active shock absorption,” Klein says. “Strong muscles will absorb impact and recover repeatedly. If you don't have enough strength, your joints will take the pounding and not recover as well.” Aim for two to three sessions of strength training a week.
5. When in doubt, ask an expert
Gym closures during the pandemic led many people to get creative with their home workouts. But while improvising can be a good thing, basement gyms can also produce injuries caused by poor form, Shroyer says.
In general, fitness experts say it can be easier to strength train safely at a gym, where things like cable and pulley machines leave less room for technique slip-ups than, say, lifting soup cans while watching TV. “When you use a machine, you're moving in a fixed range of motion and it's a lot harder to do it wrong,” Shroyer says. “Your body is also fixed in a position that's biomechanically correct.” This can be tough to replicate at home, even looking in a mirror (people tend to overcompensate when watching themselves work out, she says).
"Form is the position of your spine and joints moving during exercise,” Shroyer says. “It's important to have proper alignment of those joints to ensure you're not inadvertently putting stress on joints or tendons, which can lead to tendonitis or arthritis or other problems.”
If you don't want to head to the gym, choose at-home activities you can accommodate with what you have on hand or with a few key purchases. Following a video with a personal trainer or paying for a private session or two with a pro who can demonstrate proper form for at-home exercise can also be a great investment in your health and future.