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Even as urban India wakes up to the horrors of lifestyle-linked disorders - like obesity, hypertension and diabetes - to embrace physical exercise, doctors and fitness experts feel that exercisers need to be cautious about how one conducts one's fitness regimen. While there's no disputing that regular aerobic exercise helps fob off many ailments and maintain body weight, exercisers definitely need to bone up on facts - how much is too much, what exercise suits their body type, injuries that can occur during exercise and what to do about these injuries.
Doctors advise that, as a general rule, people with a body mass index (BMI) within the range of 18-23 may do moderate intensity workouts, whereas those with a BMI of over 25 need to work harder to lose weight and should opt for high-intensity workouts. That said, there is no one-type-fits-all routine that can be prescribed, and every individual must work in consultation with a trainer/physician keeping in mind health and lifestyle factors.
As physician Dr Ravi Chugh, Senior Consultant at Delhi's Max Medicare Hospital, says, "Exercise is beneficial for all age groups, even children, because there has been a trend in recent years for Indian kids to be sedentary and become victims of lifestyle-linked disorders. So exercising in childhood - and up to the mid-20s - builds up bone density, which can whittle down the risk of osteoporosis and fractures in later life." With advancing age, says Chugh, people lose muscle bulk and strength; and the right kind of exercise seeks to prevent such loss. "If one is not active enough, the body becomes less pliable, prone to muscle and tendon tears, which can trigger joint, back or neck pain and injuries," he elaborates.
Most fitness experts advocate weight training as a great way to augment muscle strength. However, it should ideally be done in a gym under a trainer's supervision. Even though most city gyms now have fixed equipment (which eliminates the risk of using free weights and allows more controlled-strength training), exercisers must still protect against injuries.
According to New Delhi-based osteopath Dr Ravinder Chadha, the knee joint is most vulnerable to exercise injuries. Acute injuries of the knee joint cause considerable disability and time off from sports, office or even day-to-day activities. "So if you hear a soft cracking sound in the knee while exercising, followed by instantaneous swelling or discoloration of the knee accompanied by agonizing pain, consult an osteopath immediately," he cautions.
Exercisers could also tend to over-use weights, lifting more than their capacity and thus sustaining injuries. The best way to strength train a muscle is by using slow and controlled movements. "If you're looking for effective weight loss," says Farhan Contractor, a Mumbai-based fitness expert, "longer periods of moderately intense workouts are most effective. Short periods of high intensity training are fine when integrated into athletic training. But for overall fitness, too much intensity will only lead to soreness and burnout."
According to experts, a warm-up is important before working out, especially for beginners. "A warm-up," says Contractor, "prepares the body for exercise by diverting blood flow to the muscles that will be used most during exercise. It also gives time for the heart rate to elevate gradually rather than suddenly, so that it can meet the increased need for oxygen and funnel it efficiently to the working muscles."
But while exercise can work wonders for your body, it is also imperative to know your 'exercise threshold' or when to stop. If you exercise more than your body can tolerate, then you may get a chronic or 'over-use injury', which is caused by doing an activity one is not accustomed to or by doing an excessive amount of one activity. That's why, caution experts, it is important to build up one's exercise regimen gradually.
"The amount of activity that can be tolerated before an over-use injury occurs varies from person to person but there's no denying that it can injure body tissue, sometimes irreparably," explains Amit Valahalla, of Skin Deep Gym in Rohini, Delhi. He recommends a few minutes of stretch exercises, concentrating on the muscles that will be used during the workout.
According to US fitness guru Denise Austin, author of the bestseller, 'Lose Those Last 10 Pounds', it is important to stretch your calves before and after workouts to prevent tendon tightness. He advocates standing facing a wall, with one foot in front of the other with heels on the floor, place your hands on the wall and lean forward, bending your front knee. You should feel the stretch in your back leg. Hold for a few minutes and repeat for the other leg.
According to the book, stretching is important after a workout as well because the muscles are warm and pliable then. Muscles that are flexible are far less likely to be injured than tight ones. Also, cooling down after a workout helps decelerate the heart rate gradually. One should take care not to stop exercising abruptly as this can lead to blood pooling in the lower body, causing dizziness or nausea.
Another common mistake exercisers make, fitness experts say, is to sip high-energy supplements and drinks even during moderate workouts. Unless one is doing high-intensity workouts (like athletes) or exercising for more than two hours a day, energy supplements are unnecessary; high-energy also means high-calorie. "The best drink for exercisers is water," advises Contractor. "Consume 10-12 glasses of water everyday, stick to a healthy well-balanced meal plan, exercise prudently and you're on the highway to fitness."