Should you avoid certain exercises?

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

September 2005

Americans are getting the fitness message but most of them are not acting on it. Barely one quarter of the population engages in enough physical activity of moderate intensity and frequency to gain real benefit. Regular exercise staves off most of the so-called diseases of aging: coronary heart disease, stroke, diabetes and osteoporosis. There are other advantages as well. By exercising regularly - that means almost every day - you are not likely to gain weight if your diet is otherwise unchanged. Avoiding obesity almost guarantees that you will enjoy a longer life. (Have you ever seen a fat 90-year-old?) Regular exercise will help you to avoid depression, insomnia and some forms of cancer, as well as back pain, arthritis and gallbladder disease.

Are you walking for 30 minutes or more every day? That's a good start, but our bodies were designed for lifting, carrying, pushing and pulling. This resistance exercise requires equipment such as that found in fitness centers, although a home gym is a great idea if you have the space and the cash. Learn to exercise safely. Poor judgment sometimes foils good intentions when we stroll into the local fitness center without getting instruction in the use of barbells, dumbbells and exercise machines.

Not warming up, using poor form and trying to lift overly heavy weights lead to most injuries, but there are some exercises that only a well-trained, well-conditioned athlete should do, if at all.

+ When you do sit-ups with your feet anchored you put excessive strain on the muscles of the lower back. Crunches, with your feet flat on the floor, are a better version of abdomen-strengthening exercise. ItŐs only necessary to raise your shoulders a few inches in order to give the muscles of your upper abdomen a great workout.

+ If you raise both extended legs while lying flat on your back you'll help to strengthen the muscles in your lower abdomen, but later you may spend even more time flat on your back, not able to raise anything due to injury. Flex your knees as you raise your legs to take the strain off your back.

+ A deadlift, by which you bend at the waist and pull upward on a weight, is one of the most common ways in which most people injure their back. It's a gym version of lifting a case of soda out of your trunk. And it probably happened in the Stone Age, too!

+ I used to wonder why the guys doing deep squats looked like they were in pain. They were! It's tough on the knees. You'll find that your quadriceps - the group of muscles at the front of the thigh - will get a good workout even if you use no weight at all, especially if you go through the motion slowly. And never go beyond 90 degrees of knee flexion. This is one exercise that you should try only after a knowledgeable person shows you how.

+ The bench press is probably the most dangerous exercise. Fatalities have occurred because the bar came crashing down on an athlete's neck or chest. I don't even trust a spotter, someone who can bail you out if the bar is too heavy. A bench press machine is much safer and just as effective unless you're a competitive bodybuilder.

Nature intended for you to be physically active, but do it right.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.