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Finding the Balance Series: Part 1 - Can Exercise Be Harmful?

In this series of blogs I am going to give my thoughts on the ideal relationship we should have with exercise. Just how do we strike the perfect balance between too much, too little, and what kind of exercise is good for us as individuals and that we can sustain in the long-term. In this first post, I am going to try and summarise much of what I have been writing about on other posts about the potential harm exercise can do to us.

It seems obvious that certain forms of exercise can contribute to injury. I think mostly people associate exercise injury with sudden, acute injury, like spraining an ankle or tearing a knee ligament. What most don't understand, however, is that almost all forms of exercise are slowly taking their toll on the body, and that this makes such injuries more likely to occur over time and also can bring about chronic injury and pain.

Some forms of exercise are more harmful than others, obviously, both in terms of acute and chronic injury. For instance, Aussie Rules Football is a much riskier sport for acute injury than cycling. Assuming you don't fall off your bike, you are much more likely to experience chronic injury as an avid cyclist.

The sad fact is that everything you do - or not do - carries with it some risk because the human body is so adaptive. It will adapt to your general lifestyle and the activities you do, and this is highly unlikely to be in sync with your natural evolved biomechanics. This ability to adapt has contributed heavily to the success of our species, however, the ability to adapt never had living past about 40 years of age in mind. Only living long enough for reproductive success is what is important, not being a well-functioning 70 year-old. Evolution prioritised the former.

If you have adapted to modern 21st Century life, how do you think your body is going to cope with a new running regime, for example? Not very well according to the statistics. Depending on the source, I have read that between 65-85% of regular runners will get injured in a given year. This means one of two things, either running is a bad form of exercise for the majority of people or the majority of people are maladapted to running.

It should not be the later. Running and walking are the primary ways human beings get around, much like a fish swims, an eagle flies, or a kangaroo hops and it seems most of us can't move how we have evolved to without getting injured. So what chance do we have playing sport, doing a crossfit/HIIT class, taking up yoga, or riding a bike?

People usually survive these activities for a while, how long depends on the efficiency of their biomechanics, which is probably mostly down to their genes or the chance lifestyle they have fallen into. In almost everyone, though, these exercise activities eventually catch up with them. Many of you reading this past the age of about 35 (some maybe younger) will understand this from experience. The depressing news is that even when people stop doing what is hurting them, a lot of the damage may already have been done to their posture and gait and they'll suffer the consequences for the rest of their lives. It is possible to limit and even reverse the damage, and in essence that is what this website is all about.

The adaptations the body goes through to adjust to playing a game of tennis or for weight training, for example, are unlikely to have done much good for your posture or gait, making you move less efficiently as you age, and gradually making you more prone to injury as you continually compensate for these adaptations as you get older, whether you continue with these activities or not.

The dangers of exercise are not simply limited to the biomechanical. Depending on the individual, some exercise will be dangerous to health in other ways. Perhaps most obviously, vigorous exercise for someone at risk of heart disease, but I am going to address other, less well-known, issues in this series, like overtraining, and using exercise as a fix, like a drug you can't do without. However, I do think that there is a lack of knowledge when it comes to biomechanical risk, so much of the focus will be on this area, and this is where I have the expertise.

So should we do nothing?

More sad news, especially for the exercise shy out there. We adapt to doing nothing also, our biomechanics are compromised either way, but if you do nothing you place yourself at risk of other health problems as well as the biomechanical adaptations to a sedentary lifestyle, which are likely to be worse than doing too much exercise. So you'd better do some exercise, but not too much, and make the decision about what regime to choose very wisely.

In the blogs to come, I'm going to do my best to help you choose wisely and answer the conundrum of how best to exercise, how to mitigate the risks, and just how much exercise is truly healthy. How do we find the balance?

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