Choosing a fitness program that is right for you

Written by Kevin Plancher, MD

Millions of people are hurt every year on the playing field and in the gym.

In our orthopedic practice, we see people at every age and skill level, from top-flight professionals to dedicated weekend warriors to rank beginners. They have acute injuries resulting from sudden trauma — fractures, sprains, strains — and chronic overuse injuries to bones, tendons and joints that develop over time from repetitive micro-trauma. We treat shoulders, knees, wrists, ankles and more with conservative therapies like rest, ice, anti-inflammatory pain relief and physical therapy and with more direct intervention, including surgery and rehab. We send our patients back to the playing field, the court, and the gym with instructions to start slowly and to train diligently to avoid re-injury. And we — and they — hope for the best.

But many of these athletes will be re-injured. Maybe they’ll go at their chosen sport too fast or too hard or maybe they now have a weakness that increases their risk of further injury. Maybe they should consider a different activity. Or maybe they should have chosen a different sport or fitness program in the first place — one that’s better suited to their bodies.

WHAT’S RIGHT FOR YOU?

Your best friend swears by kick-boxing. Your local gym just started offering yoga-spinning. Your college buddies play basketball every Saturday. Water aerobics at the Y sounds appealing. Cycling? Tennis? Bodybuilding? What’s best for building endurance? Strength? Flexibility? Maybe you should just get out there and jog around the neighborhood. Navigating the fitness landscape can be overwhelming. The best program is the one that works for you. What fits your body type, fitness level, personality, schedule? What will keep you healthy and injury-free? Most important, what will you love and stick with?

Let’s start with your goals. Not how many pounds you want to lose or how many pounds you want to bench press but more basic goals. I suggest just two: You want your fitness program to make you happy and healthy. You want to enjoy what you’re doing and look forward to it, not view it as penance for last night’s dessert, not count the minutes or the miles until it’s over. And you want to feel good during and after your workout. Tired is OK; pain isn’t. Over time, you want to feel stronger, stand straighter, run for the bus more easily, lower your blood pressure, buy clothes in a smaller size…

Where to begin? Assess yourself honestly and realistically. Ask yourself these questions:

ARE YOU NEW TO EXERCISING?

If you’ve never exercised actively or if it’s been years since you did more than chase the dog around the yard, don’t start with an ambitious program. Look for a basic fitness class at a local gym or community center. If you prefer privacy, you can find beginning workout videos online or at the library. Or get moving with low-impact activities like walking, hiking, swimming, beginning yoga and tai chi.

ARE YOU READY TO CHALLENGE YOURSELF?

If you’re a veteran exerciser, know your body and its limits well and welcome competition, you might think about triathlon training or a high-intensity strength and conditioning program that incorporates multiple disciplines. Beware overdoing it and injuring yourself, however.

DO YOU LIKE COMPANY?

Many people do their best work as part of a group. The relationships that develop and the mutual encouragement that results make team sports like softball and volleyball appealing. You can look also for clubs that support running, cycling and rowing.

DO YOU WANT TO LOSE WEIGHT?

Exercise on its own is not an effective weight-loss strategy. But along with a reduced-calorie diet, exercise can help you achieve the caloric deficit you need to drop pounds. Your best bet to burn a lot of calories is high-intensity exercise like running, spinning or power lifting.

DO YOU HATE THE GYM?

Can you exercise outdoors for at least part of the year? You don’t need a gym to walk, run, jog, hike, cycle or row.

Whatever your choice of fitness program, remember to listen to your body. Don’t do too much. Don’t ignore pain. If you have a previous knee injury, avoid the soccer field until you have recovered. If you’re coming off a shoulder injury, ease back on your tennis serve. If you’re getting over the flu, run fewer miles. Make exercise part of your life in a way that works for you — in a way that makes you happy and keeps you healthy. And if you do get injured, seek professional help so that you get back safely and quickly to resume the exercise and fitness program you love.

Kevin D. Plancher, MD, is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and the founder of Plancher Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine, a general orthopaedics and sports medicine practice with offices in Greenwich and New York City. For more, visit plancherortho.com.

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