Friday, July 19, 2013

Exercise Update: Too Much Too Fast

Time and again we are inspired to exercise. It may be due to motivation from a family member or a friend. It may be after seeing someone successfully lose a lot of weight. It may be the result of a warning given by a doctor. It may be due to a sudden surge of self motivation or enthusiasm. And when we finally start exercising, we land up having pain and discomfort. Sometimes the pain is bad enough to force us to stop exercise. The conclusions reached by people who face this situation are always interesting! 'Exercise does not suit me!', 'Exercise will damage my joints!', 'The doctor is bad!', 'Exercise is not a treatment, I need a proper treatment!' etc. Are these conclusions justified? Can exercise be harmful? 

Yes, there are conditions in which certain exercises can prove to be harmful. A classic example is of a patient with a bad heart who is advised not to exert or walk. Another scenario is a post operative setting after surgery where the doctor will caution against certain exercises. But these situations are rare. And for these patients, the treating physician will be very firm and specific in his advice not to do certain activities or exercise. But for the majority of us who are in average, if not good health, exercise can do little harm. 

I have seen many people cleverly use this situation to their advantage! These are the ones who do not want to exercise and understandably so … exercise requires a lot of effort and can be very boring. Besides the results achieved from exercise are never instant! So by saying 'exercise does not suit me' they manage a quick and easy escape from doing exercise .... and concerned relatives stop bothering them! 

So why do some of us experience pain and discomfort after exercise? To understand this we need to understand the nature of our muscles. Our muscles are high maintenance tissues. I say this because of the following reason. When we work our muscles, they will become larger and stronger. The more we work our muscles, the stronger they become. The strength and endurance of our muscles is directly proportional to how much we exercise them. This is easy to understand. The trouble happens when we stop exercising. The strength of muscles falls drastically when exercise is discontinued. And this fall is always quick. It doesn't matter if a person has exercised for one month or one year or ten years. If he/she stops exercising, everything is lost in a matter of a few months. Now lets consider an example. A person has toiled in the gym for ten years. He has a well toned and muscular body. He has a set routine that he is following religiously. He then takes a break for 6 months. He does not do any exercise. After 6 months he returns to the gym. In his mind he is still a fit person as he remembers the efforts he has put in for ten years.  So he starts following the same routine he was accustomed to. But his muscles are now much weaker than he realises. As a result he does more than his muscles can handle. The result is pain, discomfort and potential injury. He has made the mistake which most people make of doing too much too fast! Similarly, consider a person who doesn't exercise. He has decided to start exercising. He is excited and motivated about exercising. He ends up making the same mistake. The enthusiasm drives him to do too much too fast. The result is again pain, discomfort and potential injury. 

So what is the solution? Once we understand the nature of our muscles, the solution is obvious! When exercising we need to start slowly. Time spent on a treadmill, speed of walking, everything should be very less. Similarly number of exercises done and number of repetitions should be minimum. A person should feel like he has done nothing in the initial sessions of exercise. If he experiences pain or discomfort, he should realise he is doing too much, too fast. He should aim to find a level of exercise so low that he feels no pain. Once that level of exercise is understood, then that level must be maintained for a sufficient number of days. All increments in exercise must be small and many days apart. The second crucial step is to do an adequate warm up before starting the actual exercise. In a warm up the muscle groups are stretched repeatedly so the muscle gets toned up. A stretched and warmed up muscle is far less likely to get pulled or otherwise injured during an exercise session. In this way one can exercise without pain or injury and can enjoy the experience of exercising and gain the benefits as well. 
So the next time you experience pain after a session of exercise, do not be discouraged. Don't reach absurd conclusions like 'exercise is harmful for me?' Do not stop exercising. Understand that you are probably doing too much too fast. With this new understanding, you can get back to exercising without pain!