Avoiding Common Workout Mistakes

Exercise smarter – and safer – to help you get more out of your workouts and maximize your results.


You’ve finally made the commitment to exercise. But if you aren’t exercising correctly, you could be doing your body more harm than good. And according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE), there are some top fitness mistakes that people – regardless of age or physical ability – tend to make repeatedly. Each one can cause stress and injury to the body. To get the most from your fitness program and keep your joints strong and injury-free, be sure to avoid these exercise mistakes.

The mistake: You skip the warm-up. It’s important for raising body temperature and increasing blood flow to loosen the muscles. When you don’t properly warm up, you risk injury and stiffer joints the day after, says Jessie Jones, PhD, professor of kinesiology and health promotion, California State University-Fullerton. A simple warm-up: March in place for five minutes.

The mistake: You never stretch. Stretching gives muscles a full range of motion. “Flexibility is key in preparing for aerobic activity, particularly when dealing with joint stiffness,” says Cedric Bryant, chief science officer for ACE. The best stretch? Hamstring stretches. “When a hamstring is tight, it can cause misalignment in the pelvis and knees,” Bryant says.

The mistake: You forget to cool down. A proper cool-down, which includes deep breathing and long stretches, will get your heart rate, breathing and blood pressure safely back to normal while improving flexibility.

The mistake: You head straight for the heaviest dumbbells. Weight training increases energy and stamina, but be careful not to overdo it. “Lifting too much too soon is just going to damage the tissue,” Jones says. When weight training, you should feel fatigue by the 12th or 15th repetition, be it a 1-pound or 100-pound weight. Once that becomes easy, add more weight.

The mistake: You’re excessively huffing and puffing. A workout that’s too intense can put you in an anaerobic state, which means you aren't getting enough oxygen into your system. That causes joint and tissue pain, says Jones. How do you know if you’re getting the right combination of aerobic activity and oxygen? Find your target heart rate (subtract your age from 220), then shoot for 40 to 70 percent of that rate. “Research has shown that you can improve pain levels and weight loss in an aerobic capacity anywhere after 40 percent,” adds Jones.

The mistake: You go too easy. In order to lose weight, build muscle and maintain energy levels, a good workout means breaking a small sweat and working out at 40 to 70 percent of your target heart rate. However, there is a fine line for people with arthritis. “You have to work out within your pain level. If you’re hurting a lot over the next couple of days after a workout, you need to change the intensity,” Jones says.

The mistake: You don’t hydrate. Working out means your body needs extra water to cool off and keep blood circulating. If you’re dehydrated, you aren’t doing either. Water is especially important for older people, says Bryant, “because as we age, our thirst mechanism becomes less active, and we already tend to be less hydrated.” Drink plenty of water prior to exercise, get another 6 to 8 ounces for every 15 minutes of exercise and then follow the workout with more water to replenish what was lost.

The mistake: You eat for exercise. Unless you are training for a marathon, you do not need extra calories before working out. Eating less than two hours before a workout means blood flow is concentrating on digestion instead of on keeping muscles warm and bringing oxygen to your body. The result could be cramps and nausea.

The mistake: You’re a “leaner.” It’s easy to lean over and rest on the armrests when using stationary equipment, such as a stair climber, but Jones suggests resisting the temptation. Leaning may feel easier, but she explains, “You’re not using good posture, and that will only exacerbate joint pain.”

The mistake: You’re not focused on form. Make sure you’re using the proper form when doing a move by looking at yourself in a mirror or asking a trainer to evaluate your positioning. This is a big one, says Jones, “Because exercise is bone on bone for a person with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) or osteoarthritis (OA), there is a greater chance of injury. A lot of people use the wrong posture and hyperextend their joints.”

The mistake: You’re a little too tough. “Pushing through pain is not the thing to do. If your joints are hot or swollen, exercise can increase the damage,” Jones says. And it can cause too much pain. But remember, arthritis pain and pain from a strenuous workout are not the same. A little soreness a day or two after a workout is OK, more than that is not.

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