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Take simple precautions to prevent injuries when you exercise

Whether you’ve been exercising for years or are just starting a fitness program, it’s important to avoid injuries so you can keep moving toward your fitness goals. We become more vulnerable to injuries as we get older, in part because we’re less agile than we used to be, and we’ve also lost some of our former bone and muscle mass.

“Recovery from injury can also slow with age,” said Dr. Eric Berkson, an instructor in orthopedic surgery at Harvard Medical School and director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Sports Performance Center. “It can take longer to recover from a smaller injury, and the injured areas remain vulnerable during the recovery period.”

Some of the most common exercise-related injuries Berkson sees include:

Sprains: Injuries to ligaments, the tissues that connect bones to one another.

Muscle strains: Injuries to muscles or tendons, the tissues that connect muscles to bones.

Tendinitis: Inflammation of a tendon, often due to overuse.

ACL and meniscus tears of the knee: A rip in one of the ligaments that helps stabilize the knee or cartilage that cushions the knee joint.

Rotator cuff tears: Rips in the group of muscles and their tendons that hold the arm in the shoulder socket.

To avoid getting laid up with an injury, take these precautions when you work out:

1. Talk to your doctor: Don’t start any exercise program without first checking with your primary care provider. Your doctor can determine whether you’re healthy enough to exercise, and what, if any, modifications you’ll need to make to your program. “Exercise programs should be customized to the individual whenever possible to account for any limitations and ongoing medical conditions,” Berkson said.

2. Choose your workout carefully: High-impact exercise programs aren’t ideal for women with conditions like arthritis or osteoporosis. Non-impact exercises, including swimming or using an elliptical exercise machine, will give you aerobic conditioning without stressing your joints.

3. Learn the proper technique: Don’t start any new exercise without first learning the correct form. Work with a trainer at home or in the gym, or consult a physical therapist to help you tailor a workout to your health conditions and physical capabilities.

4. Get the right gear: Buy a pair of sturdy, comfortable sneakers that provide good arch support and have a cushioned heel to absorb shock. Wear loose, comfortable clothing that gives you room to move and breathe.

5. Start gradually: Don’t jump into a new exercise program. “The greatest risk of injury comes with changing an exercise program or adding a new exercise,” Berkson said. Start slowly. If you’re cycling, for example, set the bike’s controls on the lowest speed and tension, and pedal for just a few minutes your first few times. Gradually increase the speed and intensity only when you feel ready.

6. Warm up: Cold muscles are more injury-prone. “A proper warm-up can improve blood flow to the working muscle and reduce stiffness, potentially lowering the risk of injury,” Berkson said. Your warm-up should be active, meaning that you walk or do dynamic stretches, such as arm or leg lifts, for five to 10 minutes. Avoid passive stretches in which you assume a position and hold it, because they can lead to muscle tears.

7. Stay hydrated: When you work out, you sweat, and that means you lose some of the essential fluids your body needs to take you through your exercise program. Try to drink a glass of water before you exercise, and then take a few sips of water every 15 minutes throughout your routine.

8. Cool down: Finish your workout with a slow walk or gentle stretch for five or 10 minutes to cool down and maintain flexibility.

9. Vary your workouts: Even if you love yoga, alternate it with other programs, such as dancing, tennis or water aerobics. The variety will work different muscle groups, prevent boredom and give your body a chance to recover between sessions.

10. Know when to stop: You never want to work out to the point of pain. If an activity hurts, stop doing it right away.

“Playing through pain can often prolong your healing time and take you away from the game or exercise you enjoy,” Berkson said. “Remember to seek the advice of a medical professional whenever pain seems abnormal or is not improving.” Get help immediately if you suddenly feel dizziness, shortness of breath or chest pain.