It is a pattern that is repeated every year. Binge eating and excessive drinking over the Christmas period is followed by a nationwide fitness drive that lasts about as long as the turkey and plum pudding heartburn.
Health experts are warning people to avoid falling into the trap of “binge exercising”, which can swiftly lead to injury and disillusionment. “Over-exercising is a problem because it can damage muscles, bones and knock people’s confidence,” says Linda Bishop-Bailey, director of operations at the Institute of Sport and Recreation Management. “Although muscle strains will usually heal in a matter of weeks the psychological effects won’t. Binge-eating and drinking is seen as the norm over the festive period, but bingeing in the gym is not the solution.”
Mike Rayner, a sports physiotherapist based at London’s PhysiCo centre, is not convinced that everyone will follow the good advice. He is already gearing up for the inevitable rush in January. “It is always the busiest time of the year for physiotherapists,” he says. “People who have not exercised all year suddenly think that they can run five times a week without giving their body time to adjust. They are far more likely to injure themselves because they jump in at the deep end without adequate preparation.”
One of the most common injuries he sees is stress fractures, which are extremely painful hairline breaks. “Bones need to be strengthened gradually over time,” he explains. “Bones that are too weak to take the strain of repetitive exercise can split in as little as two or three weeks.”
Knee injuries are also much more likely if a person has recently embarked on an exercise programme after a long period of inactivity. Although minor sprains and pulls can resolve quite quickly, a torn anterior cruciate ligament can take up to nine months to heal. Women are more prone to knee injuries than men, perhaps due to an increase in hormones that make ligaments flexible. “When patients come to me, they are usually looking at a long period of recuperation. Many of them give up the idea of exercising altogether. It really is better to avoid these problems in the first place,” says Rayner.
David Marshall, aka The Body Doctor, believes that people can take advantage of feelings of guilty motivation inspired by seasonal overindulgence. The secret of success is patience, and realistic expectations. “I see people who want to change their life in a day,” says Marshall. “They want to make up for years of doing nothing and they want instant results. All they get is their old life back in a week.”
Marshall believes that s steady methodical approach is best. “Exercise in a controlled manner and you will see the benefits without the downside. Gym membership is expensive but it can be the best investment you can make. If you put the effort in, you will get it back in spades, but don’t expect everything to happen overnight.”
Gyms, which see a huge boost in enrolments in January, should always offer new members a fitness assessment and induction session. Novices should be encouraged to ask for help. “Learn to exercise correctly. If you don’t do a movement correctly, you are wasting energy and you won’t achieve the results you want. In the worse case scenario, you will go home with an injury,” says Marshall.
Luckily, you don’t have to sign up for the Boot Camp workout in order to start getting in shape. Healthy people should aim to do moderate exercise for 30 consecutive minutes five times week. Moderate exercise, which leaves you slightly breathless but not in discomfort, includes brisk walking, cycling and even gardening. The pub’s five a side football team may seem tempting after a few pints, but contact sports of any type should be played by people who have already attained quite a high level of cardiovascular fitness.
Finally, there is another very good reason to make exercise a regular part of your life. Sporadic exercise, of any type, may actually increase levels of bad cholesterol in the body, according to researchers from the Emory University School of Medicine in Georgia. Regular exercise protects the body by increasing the number of cholesterol-fighting molecules in the body. Short bursts of activity, however, either had no effect on cholesterol or made it rise, leading to a greater risk of heart attack and stroke.
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