Spring is the season of renewal and growth. We’re emerging from the winter season, a time when we’re not as physically active, and looking to take full advantage of the longer, sunny days and warmer temperatures.
Unfortunately, this is also a prime time for injuries resulting from the rapid ramping up of activity. Spending months not as active can leave your muscles and joints a little rusty, meaning it’s important to reintroduce physical activity into your routine in a slow and steady manner.
Slow and Steady Progress
The human body has a tremendous capacity to adapt to physical stress. While we tend to think of “stress” negatively, physical stress, which is simply exercise and activity, is beneficial for our bones, muscles, tendons, and ligaments, making them stronger and more functional by the repetitive breakdown and buildup of tissue. When our bodies are sedentary in the cold winter months, taking on too much physical stress too soon may lead to setbacks like plantar fasciitis, ankle sprains, and tendinitis in your knees, hips, shoulders, and elbows. Increasing your activity level slowly is key to preventing these common ailments.
It’s also crucial that you honestly approach your conditioning and wellness. It’s very common to start off when you may have left off in the fall or simply think someone your age should be able to do a certain activity. It is okay and normal to admit your body isn’t ready for an activity. Progression is key. Starting slow with low impact can help you develop a foundation to build from safely. It may take some time, but eventually you can reach your goal.
An important first step when planning any new physical activity is to check in with your primary health care provider. Your doctor can help guide your training and discuss any potential exercise or activity restrictions based on your condition and medical history. It can also be overwhelming to know where to start, and your provider can offer resources to guide your fitness journey. They may even recommend you work with a personal trainer, physical therapist, or other exercise specialist.
While it is normal to feel minor aches associated with getting active after time away from the activity, you should talk to your provider if you start to experience pain that is limiting your lifestyle, limiting your ability to perform the activity, or lingering without improving.
Don’t push through the pain. While many injuries and pains can be treated with RICE – Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation – it’s important to have your pain evaluated by a professional. The diagnosis can usually be made after a thorough history and physical examination. This is best done by a sports medicine specialist with specific interest and knowledge of your sport or activity. In some cases, x-rays are needed and additional tests like a bone scan or MRI are occasionally required as well.
Tips for Getting Active
Use the following tips in addition to working with a professional to increase your chances of staying injury-free this spring:
- Stay Hydrated – Staying hydrated not only boosts your immune system, but it can help prevent other injuries, such as orthopaedic injuries. As your body loses water during physical activity, your muscles can become tense. This interferes with your athletic performance and can make you more likely to injure yourself. Muscle strains, tears, and bone fractures are common effects of exercising with tense, cramped muscles.
- Warm Up – Warming up before exercise prepares your cardiovascular system for physical activity by increasing the blood flow to your muscles and raising the temperature of your body. When your muscles are adequately warmed up, the movements, stretches, and strain you put on them during your workout is less severe.
- Cool Down – Cooling down after your workout aims to gradually bring your heart rate and blood pressure to the level it was at prior to exercising. During your workout, your heart rate has been pumping much higher than it does normally, and it’s important to ease it back down instead of abruptly stopping all motion. Cooling down also helps to regulate your blood flow, which is especially important for people who undertake endurance sports such as long distance running.
- Keep with It – Getting started can be the most challenging part. Once you get started, keep going! The first two weeks of any new activity will be difficult. Consider alternating activities that work different muscle groups and level of impact on the body.
Getting up and getting moving after a long winter is the first step to leading a more active and healthier lifestyle. Once you do, it’s important to make being active a habit by staying motivated. The saying “walking before you run” is sound advice when looking to shrug off the winter inactivity and stay motivated and healthy in spring and beyond.
Ronald Campbell, MD, is with UPMC Orthopaedic Sports Medicine and sees patients at UPMC facilities in Williamsport, Lock Haven, and Mansfield, Pa. To schedule an appointment with Dr. Campbell at any of these locations, call 570-321-2020. To learn more about UPMC Orthopaedic Sports Medicine, go to UPMC.com/SportsMedNCPA.