Working Out From Home: Simple steps to avoid common injuries

Part 30 of USA TODAY's Working Out From Home (#WOFH) series focuses on how how to avoid injuries. Sign up for Good Sports, our weekly newsletter that will bring you more home workout tips and the best stories of the good throughout the world of sports:

For people stuck at home during the coronavirus pandemic, the biggest problem they may face trying to remain active isn’t exercising too little … it’s exercising too much.

Injuries from over-exertion can be common when working out alone, says Dr. Rahul Shah of Premier Orthopaedic Spine Associates in New Jersey.

"Most people hurt themselves inadvertently, not working out but doing something as simple as reaching for something or twisting their back or their neck,” says Shah, a neck and spine surgeon. The injury then becomes magnified when it’s time to exercise.

“Instead of working through it, you potentially injure it further. There’s a cascade that occurs,” he says. “It’s typically a small injury that leads to a larger injury, which leads to a larger injury, which is more debilitating.”

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Personal coach Jan Terhorst trains in his garage in Oberhausen, Germany. With gyms and exercise facilities are closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, athletes are finding ways to maintain their fitness at home. (Photo: Lars Baron, Bongarts/Getty Images)

So the first step in preventing major injuries is to keep the small ones from turning into larger ones.

“When you tweak something, STOP!” Shah cautions. “Your body has this amazing ability to recover itself. If you tweak something, you want to optimize your body to heal it.

“What are your basic maneuvers in doing that? No. 1, don’t keep doing that same thing,” he says, pausing briefly. (The old joke about the patient who tells a doctor it hurts when he moves a certain way is acknowledged, but unspoken.)

“No. 2, try and do other things to get your general body to work better to heal that area.”

One of the best things to start the healing process is simply walking – as long as the injury isn’t to a knee, ankle or foot. “You’re looking to increase blood flow throughout the body to take the body’s natural healing ability and inundate the areas which are hurt so the body can work on getting them stronger again,” Shah says.

Unconscious exercise

Normally, the everyday movements of getting up, going to work and doing routine activities at the office are enough to keep the blood flowing. But that isn’t always the case when working from home.

For that, Shah recommends two simple ways his patients can replicate a “normal” day’s activities.

“Whenever they are on the phone, I tell them to walk at that time,” he says. “You’re getting your steps in. You’re getting your heart to work, you’re getting your muscles working and you’re not just sitting around.

“Another thing you can do, if you’re watching TV and a commercial comes on, it’s a good time to get active. If you move around whenever that happens, you have built in three, four, five times an hour of actually moving around … without really knowing it.”

Building up strength

Once a baseline of activity is established, it’s easier to push your body toward greater levels of fitness. But without a trainer or a workout partner around, it’s easier to sustain an injury – especially if you’re trying to do a few extra reps or a longer workout.

“Nobody’s ever planned to get an injury,” Shah says. “You just kind of find out, oh my gosh I’m hurt. There are a million things that can go wrong.”

The most important thing is the feedback you get from your body. If you plan on increasing the intensity of a workout or adding weight to your exercises, don't go beyond 5%-10% more. Shah also says it’s critical to wait a couple days to judge the impact.

“If I lifted another 5% today, the best time to check isn’t immediately, the best time to check is two days later to see how you feel,” he says. “If you recover fine, you know that is a stress that your body can handle if you’re going to increase that going forward.”

He also suggests doing a variety of exercises. Perhaps aerobics one day, strength training another and yoga another. This kind of cross-training regimen targets different muscle groups and helps avoid injuries from overuse.

And don’t forget to cool down and rehydrate after every workout. The body’s internal systems need to repair themselves as well.

If all precautions are taken, there’s still a chance of injury. But Shah says keeping those chances as low as possible, while still exercising each day, is an achievable and worthwhile goal – even if you’re stuck at home.

“Trying to make sure you get 15 to 20 minutes of some type of activity to get your heart rate up is important,” he says, “because it has so many other benefits to preventing injury, in addition to helping you feel better.”

Follow Gardner on Twitter @SteveAGardner

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