Participating in regular exercise and other physical activity is one of the most important things you can do for your health. In addition to improving your fitness, exercise can lower your blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood glucose as well as helping you lose and maintain a healthy body weight. In fact, even if you have these conditions, regular exercise can reduce your risk of more serious health problems like heart attack and stroke.
While it is clear that there are many health benefits of physical activity, there are some concerns about the safety of exercise. Of course, there is a risk of injury associated with any occupational or leisure-time activity, including exercise. Common exercise injuries include muscle soreness, muscle strains, and sprains.
Rarely, exercise can result in serious injury, heart attack, and even death, especially during vigorous exercise. The risk of heart attack and sudden death during exercise is very low. In the unfortunate cases in which such outcomes occur, there is usually an underlying condition that increased the risk. This is why most people are advised to see a physician prior to beginning an exercise program.
Serious injuries including broken bones, joint damage that requires surgery, and concussions are typically the result of trauma resulting from contact, either with the ground or with another athletes. Most people who exercise at home or in a gym are less likely to suffer these injuries than athletes who play sports.
Concussions have received much attention in recent years, especially among football players. This is for good reason, since head trauma, especially repeated injuries, can lead to serious neurological, cognitive, and learning problems. New rules at the professional, college, and high school levels are an effort to reduce the types of contact, including helmet-to-helmet, that tend to lead to concussions. Screening of athletes who have sustained a potential head injury and stricter return-to-play rules are helping to identify concussions and prevent repeated injury. Athletic trainers, team physicians, and coaches are playing an important role in this effort.
There is another potential injury that has been in the news lately known as “CrossFit syndrome.” The condition is actually called rhabdomyolysis, a severe form of muscle damage that results from extreme overexertion. The damaged muscle releases enzymes and proteins, including myoglobin, into the bloodstream which can lead to liver damage and kidney failure.
It is called CrossFit syndrome because the media have picked up on a few cases of “rhabdo” that resulted from CrossFit training. The tone of some of these articles is that the group dynamic and “push past your limits” mentality among CrossFit participants contributed to these negative outcomes. It is important to note that any very strenuous activity can lead to this condition, not just CrossFit and that it is extremely rare.
You can make exercise safer by starting at a intensity that is consistent with your fitness level and progressing slowly. Also, see your physician before undergoing fitness testing or starting an exercise program, especially if you are over 40 years of age or have other health problems. A qualified personal trainer or group exercise leader can help you learn proper techniques to reduce the risk of injury.
Listen to your body, too. Feeling some level of fatigue and soreness is normal, but severe shortness of breath, chest discomfort, or muscle and joint pain, especially if it comes on suddenly, is a good reason to slow down or stop. And don’t forget that the health benefits of exercise far outweigh the small potential risks, so make exercise a daily habit.
Brian Parr, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Exercise and Sports Science at USC Aiken where he teaches courses in exercise physiology, nutrition and health behavior. He is a member of the American College of Sports Medicine and is an ACSM certified clinical exercise specialist; his research focuses on physical activity in weight management and the impact of the environment on activity and diet.