The risk of injury when returning to sport after a period of inactivity is minimal if exercise is commenced gradually, says a UNSW expert
With the resumption of full training activities and competitions for community sport this week, there are concerns about the risk of injury from people increasing their exercise loads too quickly.
While the beginning of lockdown saw an explosion of participation in online exercise classes and local parks filled with people completing their daily exercise, as restrictions eased, so did many people’s workout routines.
Lecturer in Exercise Physiology at UNSW Medicine’s School of Medical Sciences, Dr Mandy Hagstrom believes the risk of injury can be minimised by resuming training in the right manner.
“If exercise is commenced gradually, then the risk of injury is minimal,” she says.
“The risk comes when people jump straight back into high volumes of physical activity when they haven’t been doing much for a while.”
With delayed starts to sporting seasons, many people may be tempted to jump straight back into training at full intensity, hoping to make up as much ground as possible. But Dr Hagstrom recommends a more measured approach.
“Start with less days per week, less time in the given activity, and perhaps at a slightly ‘easier’ intensity than previously accustomed,” she says.
“You will be able to gauge how your body is going after a few sessions and increase as you can tolerate.
“It’s completely normal for people to feel a sense of fatigue and soreness when returning to activity, and equally as important for them to realise that these feelings will diminish over time with consistency in their routines.”
Jack Burke, Health and Fitness Coordinator at UNSW Fitness and Aquatic Centre agrees, urging people to be kinder to themselves as they return to exercise.
“For the vast majority of people, returning to exercise means not being in the same condition as pre-COVID, but you are not alone!” he says.
“Don’t beat yourself up about coming back a little underdone in these unprecedented times. Stay positive, enjoy the feeling of exercise again and being back in the gym.”
Dr Hagstrom also emphasises preparation as a key element of returning to training and exercise.
“You can help prepare mentally, as well as physically, by planning out when you think you will exercise,” she says.
“What time of day will it be? What do you need to prepare beforehand? For example, do you need to pack breakfast to have at work? How many times are you going to try and exercise per week? Set yourself goals, but make sure they are achievable.”
As for coaches and trainers working with large groups, Dr Hagstrom highlights that it is important to recognise that everyone will have been working at different levels during their time away from exercise.
“People of different training backgrounds will be able to resume activity at different speeds,” she says.
“Most people who were highly active, or competitive, will have managed to remain active even if it’s not in a manner that they were previously accustomed to and as such, they will likely be back to more ‘normal’ routines sooner than others.
“Those individuals who have been truly sedentary will have a much lower tolerance to exercise initially, however, these people will also make excellent results in the initial part of their program.
“As with anything exercise prescription-related, individualisation is key, regardless of level.”
For those who are concerned about their level of fitness and potentially sustaining an injury, Dr Hagstrom recommends consulting with a professional.
“That may be a personal trainer, or an exercise physiologist if you have specific concerns related to your health and exercising,” she says.
“There won’t be any judgement, and the professionals are here to help you achieve your goals.”