Exercise and injury prevention

Bill works construction, digging ditches by hand*. He works really hard all day long, so he’s tired a the day’s end. He figures he gets enough exercise at work, which in the strictest of terms is probably true. Only thing is, after several years of this kind of work, Bill gets injured and can’t do it anymore. The doctors say that even if he gets surgery, he’ll have to be retrained to do something else.

What happened?

Well, your body uses several groups of muscles to complete a digging action. Some it uses directly, and those are the muscles that are most worked (tired and sore) by day’s end. Others it uses indirectly, like core muscles and other stabilizers. It’s this second group that concerns us here.

Muscles are strengthened by being worked, but these “helper” muscles are not strengthened by the work being done. They help out as long as they can, but when they’re exhausted (more quickly than you might think), the main muscle groups are left to fend for themselves. So not only are the main muscle groups doing the work of digging, they’re also helping to stabilize movement and keep balance because the secondary muscle groups have given up.

So there’s a bit of a domino effect at play here. The secondary muscle groups get tired and give up, forcing the primary muscle groups to do double duty. Then those muscle groups start getting exhausted, but there’s more work to be done. The action of the work begins to get sloppy, because now there is nothing at all maintaining stability and balance – the primary muscle groups are doing everything they can to keep the digging going.

And right here is where injury takes place. Inflammation and swelling can impinge nerves or restrict blood flow. Connective tissues can become strained. Bad things happen.

It’s just that Bill is so very tired after work that he can’t even imagine exercising; it seems like effort on top of effort. Only what Bill doesn’t realize is that short workouts, concentrating on strengthening those secondary muscle groups, will help him to feel less exhausted at the end of a day. Not only that, but they’ll help to prevent the injury that will one day cost him his livelihood.

Such exercises don’t need to be high-intensity, either. Short circuits of yoga or other body-based exercises can help dramatically. Yoga has the added benefits of stretching and meditation, which can help reduce existing inflammation and help Bill sleep better. Good quality sleep is vital to health and wellness.

The kinds of exercises to focus on are those that strengthen the core muscle group (essentially all muscles that aren’t arms and legs), as well as muscles that stabilize side-to-side movement. All too often, exercises focus on front-to-back motion, because those are the directions we tend to move in. But strong lateral muscles can prevent injury by catching us as we fall or preventing the kinds of twisting that wrench joints. Side leg lifts, side steps and side lunges are all essential for injury prevention.

Does this mean Bill will be able to dig ditches indefinitely? Barring injury from other kinds of work-related accidents and provided he maintains a healthful lifestyle otherwise, probably. It’s important to remember with physical labour, as with any job, that everything we do is connected. We do not eat, sleep or work in a vacuum – each element of the way we live our lives impacts the others. So while Bill may be able to dig ditches without directly injuring himself, his overall health and well-being will rely just as much on other choices he makes about food, rest and recreation, as it will on his exercise routine.

*I know, this isn’t really done anymore, but bear with the analogy.