Exercise is like driving a car — there is a wrong way and a right way to do it. When you do it right, you get from A to B in one piece. Do it the wrong way and you can end up flat on your back recovering from injury. Anecdotally, most of us are guilty of exercising the wrong way at some point and we have the scars and niggling injuries to prove it, says Sydney physiotherapist Tony Ayoub. "A lot of us do get it wrong and that's why we see so many people coming through our doors," says Ayoub, also the physiotherapist for the Australian Rugby League side.
He explains that many of his patients are social athletes who have pushed themselves too hard too soon or who haven't taken proper care of their body when faced with injury. It is vital to take care when exercising because small injuries can recur and gradually build up to become major ones.
"Some osteoarthritic (OA) conditions are caused by injuries that have occurred in a person's younger years. These OA changes can lead to joint replacement, particularly in the knee and hip, later in life," says Ayoub.
Here, we reveal some of the most common exercise mistakes — and how to prevent and treat them.
Exercising too soon after injury
"Most people, when they injure themselves, sit idle for a few weeks and then go straight back to what they were doing when they injured themselves," says Ayoub.
The problem is that while the injury may have settled, it has often resulted in scar tissue which is not as elastic as muscle tissue. When we don't ease our body back into exercise we can cause re-tearing and build up more scar tissue.
The best treatment for an injury is to have some time (from one to four weeks) off from the aggravating exercise while using ice regularly to reduce the swelling and ease the pain. Each day gently stretch the muscles and take up an alternative exercise which doesn't put a load on that body part. Once the injury has settled, build up to the original exercise gradually. If you are a jogger, for example, start off with some light walks, build them up to brisk walks and then gentle runs.
"That process might take another week and if at any stage you get pain, drop back to the level you were at previously," explains Ayoub. The main indictor that you are going back too soon is pain, so listen to your body.
Not warming up properly
"The warm-up is really important. What we are trying to do is increase the body's core temperature so you get an automatic stretch in the soft tissues," explains Ayoub.
The way to do that is to take a brisk walk or light bike ride for about three minutes. The tissues will start to stretch due to an increase in the core temperature and increased circulation, so you then follow a stretching routine for between five and 10 minutes. Do three repetitions on each side of each stretch and hold the stretch for a minimum of 20 seconds.
Running out a niggling pain
"Pain is an indicator that some damage is being done," explains Ayoub. "When you're feeling pain you are probably tearing some fibres." Stop and go back to the warm-up stage. If it still hurts after a warm-up, stop what you're doing and change to an exercise that doesn't aggravate it. Then follow a regime of icing the injury and stretching it gently until it settles down.
A week of this is often enough because it stretches the scar tissue without further tearing. "But if you just leave it, you can end up with thick unyielding scar tissue that is more prone to tearing in the future," says Ayoub.
Stretching too hard and bouncing
The aim of stretching is to increase the muscle and tendon length which improves your range of motion. Be careful not to overtax the ligaments and don't bounce, as this can extend the cold muscle too far. "Doing it quickly and vigorously often causes small tears, which eventually can lead to larger ones," says Ayoub.
Hold a stretch for a minimum of 20 seconds and repeat the stretch three times on both sides. Stretch just before exercise and just after. To maintain good flexibility, stretch three times a day.
Using the wrong sports equipment
If your jogging shoes are really deck shoes or they have holes in them, it's time to splurge on a new pair. "You don't want to be running around in a shoe that is five years old, has holes in it and has lost its support and cushioning," says Ayoub. These days, shoes are designed with specific cushioning and support to help prevent injuries so are certainly worth the investment.
Not hydrating enough
If you wait until you are thirsty to have a drink, you are probably not getting enough fluid. "Just about every cell in our body functions on water, but particularly our muscles, so to be able to go out and do exercise we need to drink a lot," says Ayoub. "Most people drink just when they are thirsty, but being thirsty is a poor indicator that your body needs water." When you are dehydrated it can lead to cramps and muscle tightness which can result in muscle tears.
Using the big muscle groups instead of isolating the small ones
Often we use our strongest muscles to do exercises that are best done by isolating smaller, less-used ones. Sit-ups are a classic example. Done the right way, sit-ups can improve core strength and help prevent back injury. Done the wrong way, they can damage the back. People tend to use their hip flexors and back muscles rather than their abdominal core muscles. This can overload the muscles and cause injury. The key is to engage your deep abdominal muscles to flatten out your back so that you strengthen those stabilising muscles and don't strain the joints and discs in your back. Meanwhile, the hamstrings tend to get used more than the gluteal muscles in your buttocks. The key to re-training your body is to concentrate on the muscles you should be using and to put your hands on those muscles so you can feel them working. This way you are using your hands as a feedback mechanism. If they are not working, stop the exercise and start again.