How can I stop hurting myself when I exercise?
June 20, 2012 10:29 AM   Subscribe

How can I stop hurting myself when I exercise?

I'm 38, female, 5'9", now at 200 lbs. My weight has fluctuated a lot in the last 5-8 years, 170 at my best and 220 at my worst. I need to get it under control, ideally I'd prefer to be in the 150 range.

I hate exercise for the sake of exercise - going to a gym and riding a stationary bike or using a machine is an annoying waste of time to me, I want to do something productive or useful or fun. I love swing dancing, kung fu, going for long walks/hikes. (Riding a bike seemed like a good idea 'til I went over the handlebars and faceplanted into the street, so I avoid bikes now).

Kung fu started causing problems - hyperextended elbows, shins so intensely bruised and swollen (even with shinpads) that I constantly limped and couldn't wear skirts to work anymore, persistent pain in my shoulder and wrist. I quit doing kung fu and focused on walking and hiking (something "easy") until I was healed up enough that I could ease back into kung fu.

Two days of fast walking/hiking on the trail over the hill and down into the canyon behind my house (about 2 miles round trip over uneven ground) resulted in lower back pain that just won't quit - I rest it 'til it feels better, then as soon as I go for a simple walk (say, a mile, on flat ground/sidewalk), the lower back pain returns. This has been going on for a month to six weeks now. I'm not even bothering to swing dance at this point because I know my back can't handle it.

This is driving me crazy, I feel like an old lady. How do I heal up and get some good exercise?? Thanks Mefi.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (24 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Have you had your gait & shoes checked out, yet?
posted by batmonkey at 10:35 AM on June 20, 2012

Yeah, check your shoes. I had a pair of shoes that always hurt my back if I walked far in them. They were almost flat, something about them my back just did not like. I've never had this problem with any others. Also check your posture, do you tend to lean when you walk? Have you tried swimming?
posted by mareli at 10:40 AM on June 20, 2012

Tai Chi might be a good replacement for Kung Fu (I studied Kung Fu for several years and it is indeed hard on the ol' bod.) Heal with RICE and a couple of naproxen or ibuprofen every day.

But really, walking and hiking should not cause pain to a young healthy person. I think you should find an exercise physiologist to check you out. There may be an issue that can be addressed in your physiology, gait, foot structure or muscle tone.
posted by workerant at 10:42 AM on June 20, 2012

Yes to checking your shoes, but it also sounds to me like you need to develop stronger core muscles. You are great at doing active things, but weight-bearing exercise to develop your back, abs, and other core muscles will help increase stability and prevent injury. I have back problems and if I am not vigilant about keeping up core workouts, a simple walk or run can definitely throw me out of whack.

There are some good ideas in this thread and this one. If you like purpose-based exercise, you could try swimming which is great for the core, or see if there are yoga (talk to the teacher first, you want something gentle and for beginners) or pilates classes you could take to build up some core strength. After that, you could also look into Zumba classes--my friends who take those say they are great for core strength and really fun.
posted by stellaluna at 10:49 AM on June 20, 2012 [4 favorites]

In addition to getting your gait checked, I would suggest massage therapy too. I am about your same build, and I know I am prone to tightness in the whole hip, lower back, hamstrings complex, and resting is not as effective as getting it all worked out.
posted by dame at 10:55 AM on June 20, 2012

With regard to pain resulting from exercise, maybe you are pushing yourself too far too fast? My various attempts to take up jogging all failed because I used to push myself as hard as possible from the get-go, only for the resulting aches and pains to put me off. I have subsequently learned that you don't actually need to run as far as you possible can; you start off by walking and then very slowly increase the amount of running (over several months), with additional exercises to slowly improve those parts of my body that are obviously struggling. This has made the world of difference to my exercise routine.

Ditto the shoes/gait though.
posted by oclipa at 10:57 AM on June 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

CTRL+F "stretch" no results??? Presumably you've just omitted this, but if not-
Warm up and cool down stretches with any exercise, every time
Stretch on off days too
No hyperextensions

This is especially important in kung fu...
posted by MangyCarface at 11:03 AM on June 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Absolutely get new, properly fitting shoes if you don't have them already.

I did want to say that the gym doesn't have to be unproductive, though - I was injured for a few months and unable to run, and got completely addicted to the recumbent exercise bike because I could read trashy books while I did it. I would have specific books (usually YA fiction) I would only allow myself to read at the gym and I found it really, really motivating to get there most days.
posted by something something at 11:06 AM on June 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

Have you been stretching?

Also: using the machines/biking at the gym/lifting/"annoying wastes of time" are all ways you make your body ready for some of the exercises you are describing. Don't reject them because they're boring.
posted by spunweb at 11:28 AM on June 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

Go see a physical therapist. A good one will be able to take a look at you and tell you exactly what's wrong and off balanced in your body and then help you fix it!
posted by astapasta24 at 11:39 AM on June 20, 2012

Shoes! If you have a specialty store like Fleet Feet in your area, they'll fit you with good shoes.

Also, look into workout dvds. To me, they are sometimes fun and not "pointless" feeling like exercise machines. There are so many workouts available now, for just about any fitness level or interest. I exercise with dvds during the work week, so that I'm in shape enough to enjoy being active when I have the time to do "real" things.

The forum at is a great resource, or you can browse at online stores like or
posted by Kriesa at 12:15 PM on June 20, 2012

I rest it 'til it feels better, then as soon as I go for a simple walk (say, a mile, on flat ground/sidewalk), the lower back pain returns
You need to train yourself to give it a few extra days here. In fact, with this many cycles of injure-rest-reinjure I would be very cautious about transitioning from the rest phase. I know it is frustrating, but doing things too soon is, as you've found, the fast track to unhappiness.

Also, do you carry anything while walking? (Backpack, perhaps?)
posted by anaelith at 12:16 PM on June 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

The best way to stop from hurting yourself when exercising is to take it slow. Embarrassingly, mind numbingly, I-know-I-can-do-better-that-this, slow. I'm 40 and I have been exercising in gyms most of my life, weightlifting etc, but several times, for various reasons, I've taken 6 month breaks and fell out of decent shape.

More times than I can count I've gone back in the gym and thought I'd take it "slow" by starting bench pressing 150 or so, since I "know" my maximum is around 300. Inevitably I'd hurt myself. Some small weak muscle that had barely been getting any use had shriveled away would get pulled, or some tendon which hadn't had much stress would get strained. All the "big" muscles would be feeling fine, but the weak link will pull it out.

The most recent time I spent a few weeks basically pretending I was a baby, benching the bar, curling 20 pounds, etc... Just acclimating my weakest bits to doing stuff again. Then I started adding weight pretty fast, and now I'm back up to where my body feels it should be. The few weeks seem like a long time, but it's short when I consider how much time I love from a serious strain.

So I suggest you do what every you want to do, but take it super slow. Wanna run? Do Couch to 5k. Wanna hike? Make your own similar plan. If you're feeling beat up after the first session of any new thing, you're taking it to hard.

Incidentally, there's a fair bit of science saying stretching does you no good and may even make it easier to be hurt.

On preview, what anaelith said.
posted by bswinburn at 12:19 PM on June 20, 2012 [7 favorites]

I think you won't get the results you want just taking some hikes or dancing. Strength training, either a gym or at home, will help you build muscle, which means you'll burn more cals/fat all day long than you are now. Time spent at the gym isn't wasted--it's purposeful. You can listen to music or podcasts or audio books if you get bored. I can understand all the reasons people don't want to go to a gym or take an exercise class, but the time you spend on yourself isn't without purpose. After you get stronger, then hiking, climbing, rowing, etc will be more fun and more productive.
posted by Ideefixe at 12:20 PM on June 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

"time I lose from a serious strain" I do not love serious strains.
posted by bswinburn at 12:21 PM on June 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think yoga is great on its own, and also a nice complement to other exercise. I also found it helped with weight loss - because it made me more in touch with my body, and I knew when I was full, and felt it a bit more when I'd eaten poorly. If you want to lose weight, your diet is going to be more of a factor than exercise, so you can definitely do something lower key like walking/hiking - just realize you almost certainly need to adjust your diet to lose a significant amount of weight. Personally, I'd look into yoga, and swimming/

Make sure you're warming up before you do anything. Stretch too!
posted by backwards guitar at 12:26 PM on June 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

bswinburn has it. However slow/gentle you think your workouts are - make 'em slower and gentler. I understand that it's frustrating to "wait" for when you can start "real exercise", but when the mind is anxious for results it tends to suppress signals of distress from the body and makes you overestimate how ready you are to push further. The fastest way to exercise injury is to overexert yourself when you're not ready and bad form while exercising.

Start with getting good shoes - go to a store with knowledgeable people (use Yelp etc.) who can evaluate your gait and your needs. Then start walking. First slowly and for shorter distances, three times a week. Keep that up for a month. Oh I can hear you shouting in frustration, but please, go that slow and gentle. Second month, start going longer and faster by a small amount. Third month escalate again, a bit, and make it 4 times a week, but not all days clumped together - take breaks. Fourth month go to five times a week, along a pattern of two days exercise, one day break and keep looping that 2ex + 1br. Fifth month you should be walking pretty briskly. Month six a gentle jog + walk - it's like the C25K program, only you've now had a 5 month preparatory time. But now comes the most important thing:

During that 5 month preparatory exercise regimen, before you take on C25K-like jogging regimen, you are doing the most critical thing: you are losing weight by restructuring your diet. Because cutting back on calories - while eating healthily and with adequate protein - is the most efficient way to lose weight, much more efficient that exercise alone (research has shown this over and over again). Why should you be doing this? Because being overweight can be a big source of injury when exercising for people prone to injuries - it's not fair, but it's reality; some people are just much more prone to injury from being overweight, anything from plantar fasciitis, to back pain and everything in between. So you lose weight while gently exercising and when your'e ready to tackle more hardcore workouts, which should include some weight lifting, you are at a much better weight which should lower your injury rate.
posted by VikingSword at 1:04 PM on June 20, 2012 [5 favorites]

VikingsSword and bswinburn

have it absolutely right. I don't have anything else to add, really, except that I want to reiterate: they are right. Listen to them. Those are your answers.
posted by Tevin at 1:35 PM on June 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

Weight loss is 80-90% diet. Chicken breasts or other lean protein, vegetables, little to no carbohydrates, and a small caloric deficit.

If you try to exercise really hard and then do not exercise diligence on what you eat, you're gonna have a bad time.

Not to say that exercise isn't a good idea, it's always better than not, but if your goal is extended and permanent weight loss you need to spend that mental energy fixing your diet. Your body is really amazingly efficient at turning food into energy - I think it takes less than the energy in 1 M&M to walk the length of a football field compared to just standing still.

I would suggest swimming as a low-impact yet highly strenuous full-body exercise.
posted by spatula at 2:46 PM on June 20, 2012

I hate exercise for the sake of exercise - going to a gym and riding a stationary bike or using a machine is an annoying waste of time to me

I agree with others that VikingSword and bswinburn have the best advice here, but I just wanted to say that you might find free weights more fun and less exercise-for-exercise's-sake-y than the machines or the bikes. I can't stand either one -- I do a five-minute bike warmup at the beginning of each session, and by the time it's over I can hardly wait to jump off and go lift! Something about the level of concentration needed makes lifting free weights feel less like a pointless chore and more like an activity done for its own sake, the way hiking and swing dancing are.
posted by vorfeed at 4:24 PM on June 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

As someone who's a little older and a little more overweight, I feel your pain. The things I've found really help: stretching (yes, most of my injuries have happened when I knew I was tight), yoga (for the stretches and strengthening), and bodyweight strength exercises. Like you, I get bored in cardio or aerobics. But I love bootcamp classes, tolerate zumba, and love other classes at my Y.

The instructors (if they're good!) help you push yourself without hurting yourself. They provide ideas for pain (if you're low back hurts after hiking a canyon, are you stretching your hip flexors and hamstrings enough? Holding your posture erect when hiking?), and they help you balance out the muscles worked.

First, though, I'd go see a doctor or sports medicine person. Your current level of pain is keeping you from functioning in your daily life. That's serious! Bring in a professional, your continued health is well worth it!
posted by ldthomps at 5:42 PM on June 20, 2012

Have you had a physical lately? You might want to get some bloodwork done to make sure there are no deficiency-related or endocrinological reasons for this.

I say this because the last time I experienced easy bruising and persistent back pain/other aches and pains, it turns out I was severely anemic and iron-deficient. Once I got those issues sorted out, I experienced a lot less pain. Now I get pleasantly sore after a good hike, but it's not debilitating.

Another vote for yoga, too. It's good for flexibility and balance, both of which are important to avoiding injury. But it also builds muscle and makes you more body-conscious in general, which again, help you avoid injury.
posted by lunasol at 10:05 AM on June 21, 2012

Deadlift more.
posted by tiburon at 10:11 PM on June 23, 2012

Find someone who knows body mechanics well, and get an FMS (Functional Movement Screen), along with the checkups/bloodwork recommended above.

The FMS should identify imbalances in your body, and you should get recommendations to fix.

Also, beware personal trainers--there are great ones, and lousy ones. I'd lean towards someone with a degree in kinesiology or sports science.
posted by 4midori at 2:12 PM on June 27, 2012

« Older Where can I meet/hang-out/make merry with other...   |   Looking for ukulele groups/choirs in MD Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.