Safety: The Most Important Part of Choosing a Fitness Program
The most dangerous thing you do every day is (probably) driving your car. Yet few give driving a second thought because it gets us where we need to go. Similarly, most of us need to reach a certain destination, or goal, through exercise.
But safety is often an afterthought when it comes to exercise. As people choose a fitness program, they make a lot of fuss about the effectiveness of various exercise modalities, from which burns the most calories to which builds the most muscle. But the all-important question of safety gets lost in the shuffle. Safety is a crucial consideration, if not the most important variable in picking the best fitness program for you. After all, it’s hard to enjoy the benefit of exercise if you’re injured.
Fitness Safety - Who Is Responsible?
At the crux of the safety issue is the question of responsibility. Should fitness programs come with warning labels listing potential dangers? Said another way, if you were to walk in to a restaurant and eat too much, is the restaurant liable for giving you too much food? Such logic may seem ridiculous, yet when it comes to fitness, many are quick to point the finger at certain exercise platforms being too much “food” for the body. Still, people tend to exercise regardless of the consequences, because we know it’s good for us and it beats the alternative.
Collectively, society has never been more enthusiastic about exercise. If you look at the top ten list of core participants in the U.S., fitness-related activities represented eight of ten. While more people participating in exercise is surely a good thing, what about too much of a good thing? Too much running can lead to breakdown in your joints. Some contend that too much CrossFit allegedly leads to rhabdomyolysis. Some say too much yoga can lead to pulls and tears. So just what is the balance, and are there some exercise programs that are inherently dangerous? The following checklist should help you decide.
The Fitness Safety Checklist
#1 Do Your Homework
Would you go on vacation without doing a little research? I am guessing you would have a plan for safety –the right places to stay, the right places to eat, and so forth. When it comes to picking an exercise program, doing your due diligence is also of the utmost importance.
Of course, deciphering the data is easier said than done. The reality is there’s a lot of inconclusive data out there and you have to dig deep. To get the real skinny on exercise, look for peer-reviewed studies and not ones funded by the companies and platforms you’re researching.
#2 Work with Pros
Ask your trainers, coaches, and proprietors for their credentials. Your doctor likely has copies of their degrees and diplomas on their office wall. If your trainer, coach, and gym is hesitant about providing copies of theirs, go elsewhere.
"Sport and fitness is about approaching each task with preparation and humility."
There are a lot of “Johnny-come-latelys” in the fitness industry, which has seen plentiful growth in recent years. Make sure your trainer is a grade-A coach and not an opportunist looking for a way to make a quick buck at your expense.
#3 Assess your Body
If I were going to race my car, I’d make sure the tires were in good shape and properly inflated, and the fluids were topped off. If I were going on a rugged adventure trip or climbing a mountain, I’d make sure I was properly acclimated. Why should it be any different with exercise?
Instead of asking if running bad for you, ask yourself if your body is prepared for running. The bottom line is that it is your responsibility to assess your health and fitness level via yourself, your doctor, and a trained/certified fitness professional before trying new exercise modalities.
#4 Stay in Your Lane
Competition is part of life, from getting your next job to landing a spot on an athletic team. When it comes to exercise and pushing yourself, competition should be fierce. But as it relates to safety, beware of peer pressure and peer competition.
If I’ve learned anything though in my years of fitness, martial arts, and boxing, it’s that someone is always bigger, faster, and stronger than you are. Competing is fine, but a mismatch and picking the wrong time to compete can be a sure fire way to get hurt. When it comes to competing, two things are essential:
- Pick your spots'
- “Fight” in your “weight class”.
Picking your spot means checking your ego. It means knowing when it’s time to compete and when it’s time to back off. Fighting in your weight class means that if you’re a 45-year-old weekend warrior, don’t be goaded into a battle with a muscle-bound 25-year-old competitive athlete.
#5 Gear is Essential
Another thing I’ve learned through boxing is that gear matters. I never sparred without my equipment (16oz gloves, cup, mouthpiece, and headgear). I don’t hit the bag without taping my wrists or wearing wraps. Having the right gear can mean the difference between a safe workout and injury.
"Having the right gear can mean the difference between a safe workout and injury."
With exercise, probably the most important place to start is with the ground up – your shoes. As a general rule, shoes should be fairly new (six months old or less), the right fit, and the right shoe for your gait. Additionally, a new study shows it’s much safer to rotate shoes. According to a 22-week study on runners, participants who rotated shoes had a 39% lower risk of injury than those who did not. The idea is that different running shoes alter your stride slightly and distribute impact patterns differently by varying tissue loads.
#6 Maintenance is Required
I am a member at a sports recovery center where I join the ranks of professional athletes, weekend warriors, CrossFitters, and local triathletes in preparing our bodies for battle. Maintenance is part of training, not just something to do when you’re injured. Maintenance can be anything from ice and heat, to having an acupuncturist or chiropractor, to active stretching and trigger point therapy.
When it comes to maintenance, the fitness industry is lagging behind the athletic world. However, slowly but surely, the two worlds continue to meld. If you’re over 25 and participate in an intensive fitness program, hire a professional to help you develop a body maintenance routine today.
Why Do Something That Could Kill You?
CrossFit founder Greg Glassman recently defended his program stating, “Stay in your chair where you're sure to get hurt, and you'll become one of the 300,000 people who will die next year from sitting in their chair doing nothing.” Yet at the same time, Glassman states “It (CrossFit) can kill you. I’ve always been completely honest about that.”
So just why would anyone want to do something that could potentially kill you? Speaking as someone who has participated in similar sports like martial arts and boxing, it comes down to dealing with ego and knowing your limits.
"Safety is a crucial consideration, if not the most important variable in picking the best fitness program for you."
Sport and fitness is about approaching each task with preparation and humility. Think again of the driving analogy. Most of us drive to get somewhere despite the dangers. While none of us controls our own destiny entirely, our safety has to do with taking the correct precautions. With driving, it comes down to being prepared with a safe vehicle and not letting your ego get in the way through dangerous activities like speeding or reckless driving.
Similarly, finding a safe workout is about doing your homework and getting the right information and gear. But most of all, staying safe in fitness has everything to do with knowing yourself.
More on exercise safety:
- How to Prevent CrossFit Injuries: A Guide for Coaches and Athletes
- Avoiding Injury: How to Train Safely For Years to Come
- The Rx Factor: 3 Reasons You Must Scale Your WODs
- New on Breaking Muscle Today
1. Fitness Activities Dominate Top Ten List Core Participants. Sports and Fitness Industry Report, (2014).
2. Malisoux, L. et. al., Can parallel use of different running shoes decrease running-related injury risk?, Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports. (2015).
Photo 1 courtesy of Mohamed Ashour, CrossFit Stars.
Photo 2 couretsy of Jorge Huerta Photography.