Your Guide to Building the Awareness You Need to Exercise Safely
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Whether you’re embarking on your fitness journey for the first time or are an old pro coming back to it, chances are you’re concerned about getting hurt. No article out there can cover all the “what ifs” and teach you how to do everything correctly. Luckily, exercising safely comes down to mastering two things: planning and observation.
We teach our kids to look both ways before crossing the street and to be aware of their surroundings. Same things go for us! If you can plan and observe, you can reduce your chances of injury and increase your chances of reaching your goals.
I’m a personal trainer, nutritionist, and self-defense instructor with 10 years of experience. I’ve seen a lot of dangerous things go on in the world of fitness — most done by well-intentioned individuals who are trying their best but haven’t stopped to think about their environment or their body’s movements.
The two factors you need to consider for safe exercise are:
external elements, like poor gym equipment or the weather
internal elements, like not engaging your core while lifting or not listening to your body when it’s telling you to stop.
Ideally if you’re going to start working out, it’s best to find a knowledgeable certified personal trainer who can help you with proper exercise form, teach you how to use workout equipment, and be there in case something does go wrong.
Whether you choose to work with a trainer or not, you are the one in charge of your safety.
Tips for Exercising Safely Outside
A good friend of mine, Lin, used to just put on sweatpants to run outside. She would complain that her run wasn’t great because she’d forgotten her sunglasses, or water, or had on the wrong shoes. She felt like she wasn’t getting anything out of her runs and would often be nursing a sprained ankle or sore knees.
I would tell Lin to take a few moments to make a plan. Most of these things, once you stop to think about it, are common sense, but here’s a list to consider before heading outside to work out:
Weather/temperature: Sun protection, wind chill, slippery roads… these things all need to be taken into account when choosing your attire and if you should go or not. Exercising in extreme heat (and humidity) or cold can be dangerous, or even deadly. When the temp is extreme, opt for indoors.
Air quality: Most weather apps will tell you what the air quality is like in your area. Look at pollution, pollen, and smoke if you live in an area prone to forest or wildfires. Smoke in the air is a definite no-go. If you have allergies and use an inhaler, always bring it with you.
Terrain: Footwear needs to be appropriate for the surface. For example, if you run or hike on trails, buy trail running shoes whose design provide better traction, stability on uneven terrain, and protection from rocks, roots, and sticks.
Lighting: If you’re going to be out after dark, make sure you’re in a well-lit, well-populated area that’s safe. Wear brightly colored and/or reflective attire. And always be sure you have ID and your cell phone. Working out with a buddy after dark is also a good idea!
Music: We all like our music, but you want to be able to hear approaching cars, other pedestrians, or animals. Even just having one earbud out can help keep you alert to dangers.
Know your limits: If you’re going to start running, pick a short loop that’s close to home or your car. You don’t want to get three miles from home and realize you’re overly exhausted.
The fresh air and scenery is always going to be better than the inside of a gym. It’s good for your mind, body, and soul. Exercising outside is great; just create a plan and keep your awareness up.
How to Assess a Gym and Your Home for Exercise Safety
Depending on your preferences, a lot of us end up working out at a gym or at home. When Lin would go to the gym, she would complain that it was always crowded. She would just go to whatever machine was open and then end up on a treadmill.
Lin was resistant to having me help her because she had always been fit and active as a teenager. Instead of asking me to help, she would go to social media and find a workout that looked flashy and well outside her fitness level and take that to the gym. Needless to say, she would end up feeling defeated and, unfortunately, got injured a few times.
Just like with training outside, you need to be aware of your environment. Before joining a gym, take a tour. You don’t need to be a gym expert to be able to spot a bad one. I’ll let you in on a secret: all gyms are going to have roughly the same sort of equipment and layout. Check if the equipment looks cared for, is spaced out well, that there aren’t pieces of equipment left out, and if the entire gym is clean.
Other questions to consider:
Does the gym maintain its safety standards?
Are staff CPR-certified?
Do they have an AED (automated external defibrillator) on site?
Is there video monitoring?
How well lit is the parking lot?
Don’t be afraid to ask questions and to ask for a free pass to try it out. Go at a time that you’d usually go and see what it’s like. All this can go a long way to keeping you safe.
If you’re going to work out at home, many of the same rules apply. Even if you’re not going to have a designated home gym, you want to make sure you clear your area of debris and have pets and children’s locations separated before you start your workout.
11 Ways to Be Mindful of Internal Factors That Impact Exercise Safety
After you’ve addressed the external factors, you need to look at the internal factors of safety.
Most people I see at the gym are lacking a mind-body connection. The best way to build this connection is to scan your body constantly while exercising. Try not to get distracted by chatting with friends or zoning out to music. No matter what move you’re doing, check in with your body — particularly your core.
One study found that core stability is vital to musculoskeletal injury prevention. Treat every exercise like a core exercise; when you do bicep curls, squats, anything… engage your core. No matter what position you’re in, keep your abs pulled in, your ribs from flaring out and your back from arching. Basically, you want to keep the center of your body taut and not moving from side to side or front to back unless you’re doing specific core exercises (like Russian twists or plank body saws). This will align your spine and promote good posture, which will protect you from a wide range of injuries.
Another study that reviewed nearly 3,000 causes of injury at fitness facilities found that the No. 1 cause of injury was overexertion. You’ve probably heard of “runner’s high.” Well that’s true of all exercise, not just running. You get going and you may find it hard to stop!
This is especially true if you’re in a group fitness setting where there’s an element of positive peer pressure and friendly competition (think: Orangetheory or Peloton). This is a benefit of group fitness, but can lead to injury if you’re not paying attention to your body when it’s telling you it’s time to stop or slow down.
The same can be said for lifting weights. I can think of many times in my own workouts where the will to do those last couple of reps was there, but the muscles said nope. To force it past that point can lead to serious damage. Pushing yourself means working your body for a little bit more than it is used to. Pushing yourself does not mean forcing it past the breaking point.
Here are a couple things to keep in mind to help you build that mind-body connection:
Self-talk: Ask yourself how you’re feeling regularly. If you can’t verbally answer with more than a grunt, you’re probably working at 80–90% of your max heart rate. For most workouts, you want to spend the majority of your time in the 70–80% range, which means you should be able to say about three words without having to gasp for air. If you’re in the 80–90% range, pay attention and know when to slow down.
Warm-ups: Five minutes of gentle, dynamic movement helps your muscles and joints get warm, increases mobility, and prevents injury.
Cool down and stretch: Give your body time to reduce your heart rate and stretch out the muscles you’ve worked. Do not “bounce” your stretches… go slow and steady, thinking about increasing range of motion in the stretch gradually.
Active rest days: Your body needs low-key days to heal. Try walking, yoga, housework, or sports like kayaking or pickleball. You don’t want or need to stop moving completely on active rest days.
Plan your workouts: Alternate strength training muscle groups on different days. Talk to a trainer if you need help. Skipping this step can lead to overtraining and injury.
Sleep: Chronic tiredness lowers your brain function and makes being able to plan and stay alert difficult.
Fuel and hydration: Eating right and drinking enough water helps keep your muscles and brain functioning in top condition.
Proper attire: Wear clothing you can move in but won’t get caught on things. Invest in decent shoes. Purchase lifting shoes for weightlifting, running shoes for running, and cross-training shoes for cardio.
Start slowly: If you’re doing cardio as a beginner, start with 15 minutes and build up. Start with lighter weights or use your body weight until you’re comfortable with doing exercise with good form.
Keep it simple: There are lots of great but flashy workouts online. When you’re just starting out, you need the basics: squats, lunges, rotational movements, core, and push/pull movements. That’s it! It may not be flashy but it’ll be less likely to harm you and you’ll get results.
Ask for help: If you need someone to spot you doing a chest press, ask someone. Find a coach to help you, even if it’s just to get started. Investing in some education and support can save you money in medical bills down the road.
The Moral of the Story
There’s always that X-factor. No matter how careful you are, sometimes things just happen. This happened to me in 2018. I slipped outside while pumping gas, busted my knee, and got a concussion. Things like this happen and are frustrating.
The best thing you can do in these cases is to rest and let your body heal. And of course don’t let an injury or illness make you throw in the towel altogether. You can still focus on your nutrition, sleep, stress, and other healthy habits while you heal. When you’re able to get back to exercising, take things slowly. Use the injury as an opportunity to refocus on that mind-body connection and keep your form top notch!
As for my friend Lin and her misadventures in exercise, I was finally able to convince her to change gyms and let me put together a routine that focused on planning and mind-body connections. The winning element came when I introduced her to martial arts and yoga, two disciplines that required her to form that mind-body connection.
Remember all this information boils down to planning and being observant of your external and internal environments. Be mindful at all times. Doing so will help protect you from injury and make your workouts more enjoyable.