Finding some sort of physical fitness is essential in today’s culture of sedentary jobs and lifestyles. For many, the gym is their primary location for fitness. This can be due to weather restricting outside activities, convenience, comfort (working out is always more comfortable in a temperature controlled setting with easily accessible water), range of activities offered, etc. However, the gym can create an environment where your body actually develops problems, instead of maintaining optimal health.
Aside from burning calories and improving our cardiovascular fitness and physical strength, fitness activities should help us become more aware of our bodies. As we are active, we should notice groups of muscles that are working hard, areas of tension or discomfort, how taxing each activity is, etc. It should be a time to connect with our bodies and learn about them. This will help us to determine areas of weakness or dysfunction, or track our progress and functional goals.
However, the gym is set up for things to be easy and convenient. Cardio equipment is typically grouped near TVs with magainzes nearby. While this can make our time on machines go faster as you're not constantly watching the clock, it can have a negative impact on our bodies. First, diverting your concentration to a TV or magazine takes your consciousness completely away from the body. We no longer are able to perceive if our weight is staying more to one side than the other, if there is slight tension in our lower backs, or what muscle groups are actually working. This makes it easy for our bodies to use compensation patterns to complete the activity. These compensation patterns eventually lead to breakdown, pain, and/or dysfunction.
Additionally, machines of any nature can also be problematic. They are designed to help place the user in a safe position and be sure the motion is happening around the correct axis (ie the knee extension machine makes sure that we are straightening at the knee and not the hip). This is helpful for someone new to fitness or is not very body-aware, but it becomes really easy for the machine to passively hold us upright. It is important that no matter if we’re doing a strength machine or cardio machine, be sure that you are “owning your body.” If you’re doing a simple bicep curl machine, don’t simply let your entire upper body rest upon the chest bar, use your own core musculature to hold yourself up in space and control unwanted motion at the core and shoulder, THEN perform your bicep curl. On the elliptical, use your abs to help rotate your ribcage as you articulate the handlebars and position your hip over your foot. Don’t simply “throw” your weight back and forth by sticking out your hip and/or leaning with your shoulders. Either way will cause the pedals to go down and calories to burn, but only one is truly beneficial for your body in a holistic manner.
Lastly, don’t get stuck in a rut! If you’ve been doing the same machines, strengthening exercises, or routines for more than 2 weeks, you’re on your way to an overuse injury or muscular imbalance. Our bodies are very good at being efficient and it’s easy for them to go into auto-pilot when performing the same activities over and over. Switch it up! Try the machines in a different order, use a cardio machine you’ve never tried before, run the track instead of using a machine, take a class that’s new to you, etc. The more variability you introduce in your routine, the more your body will respond and the more balanced it will stay. If you’re worried about hurting yourself or using proper form, talk to your physical therapist or set up an appointment with a personal trainer.
You’ve already done the hard work by getting to the gym consistently and putting in the time, now make sure you get the most out of it you can!
Written by Lesley Callaham, MPT, PRC on July 24, 2018