Beware: This exercise might kill you.

The other day, I read a New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell about the massive amount of brain damage football players undergo over the course of years of practice.  The athletes often sustain repeated hits to the head with the same level of force as a car crash.  Gladwell likens the sport to dogfighting, because the players have become so loyal to working their hardest and not letting their team down that they put their own well-being at risk.  Much like how a dog that sees its trainer out of the corner of its eye will continue to fight, even with mortal wounds, our professional (and, many argue, high school and collegiate) athletes push themselves through massive brain damage—injuries that cause vomiting in the short term in Alzheimer’s like dementia long-term—in pursuit of victory.

Meanwhile, another article printed in the New York Times last month talks about the hidden peril in practicing yoga.  The supposedly gentle and therapeutic practice can actually lead to more back injuries than it heals, and, in extreme cases cause enough spinal damage to lead to seizures or death. 

On the fitness spectrum, professional football and yoga probably seem like polar opposites.  Part of what’s disconcerting to most who read the New York Times article is that the majority of people live under the impression that yoga is gentle and safe.  With one publication, though, many are second-guessing their choice to practice yoga. For optimal health, it seems best to play it safe, stick with the workouts that don’t have such a high risk of injury.

Who can argue with that?

At the club where I work, all new trainers go through a multi-day intensive course where we discuss the company history, basic sales tactics 101, and standard protocol for introductory training sessions given to all new members.  It’s usually filled with a combination of trainers who are completely new to working in the fitness field and those who’ve worked for years at other companies, and, for one reason or another, decided they needed to switch homes. 

During my initiation, one of the latter, more experienced trainers started a lengthy debate with the woman leading the session about whether the club should have “off-limits” exercises.  Some gyms, it turns out, come up with a list of exercises that trainers should avoid, the logic being that the risk involved with performing the moves outweigh the benefits.  Make sense, given the particular exercise the trainer cited was a Good Morning—a form of deadlift where the individual puts a weighted bar on her shoulder, then hinges at the hip as though she’s bowing to royalty.  It’s killer on the butt and back of the thigh, and, when weights are chosen cautiously, can strengthen the lower back.  On the other hand, it’s incredibly easy to arch the spine too much—and low back muscles are fairly wimpy compared to the big honking leg muscles that are supposed to act as the powerhouses for the move.  Add in the strain the bar can put on the neck and cervical spine, and it’s a wonder anybody would practice the move, right?

Well, no, actually. But to get into the particulars of why is more of a digression than this post needs at the moment.

The woman in charge of the training said that the company trusts its trainers to be able to tell whether an exercise is safe for a client or not.  The seasoned trainer seemed incensed by this argument—that puts a lot of trust in the trainer.  How do you know a truly new recruit will have the know-how to tell which exercises are safe and which are not?

It’s the same argument that comes up in that yoga article, really: can you trust that your instructor will have the ability to keep you safe?  Not a whole lot of certification is needed to teach yoga.  No wonder people are getting hurt in a practice previously considered safe—they’re being led by someone who knows little more than they do about what’s reasonable to expect the body to do. Some of the certifications available for personal trainers are little better than those for yoga instructors.

These points may not seem like they overlap—how is an athlete pushing himself to glory for the success of his team and the approval of his coach, groups who care more for the collective than his individual well-being, similar to your average person putting herself into the care of a fitness professional whose intention is to keep the client safe while aiding her in improving her overall health?

The common thread, though, is this concept of the seemingly paradoxical ability for exercise to both hurt and help.  They all involve the same central question: Does this activity we once thought was healthy actually cause more harm than good?

I don’t think the cultural interest in this question is all that mystifying.  Obviously, we want the activities we seek out—whether they be professional sports that show off the pinnacle of athleticism or the workouts we do to lengthen and better our lives—to not hinder the health and fitness that they’re meant to promote.

No, the interesting point lies in the fact that we readily judge exercises in such black-and-white terms, immediately labeling the activity as hazardous or healthful, not allowing for gray areas.  Walk into my gym on a given day, and you’ll be able to find people who will tell you about the wonders of running and those who will tell you it’s worse for the body than running naked through nuclear fallout. You’ll hear how working out in barefoot sneakers that make you look like a periwinkle-footed monkey will solve all your lower body ailments, and that they can wreck your knees in a hot second. 

When something goes wrong, we blame the exercise, we blame the person teaching the exercise (who, yes, I agree should know enough to keep her clients’ safe), but we never consider those neon-signs our bodies give that many ignore while performing the exercise.  Many have heard the term, “No pain, no gain.”  As many have become aware, this cliché isn’t quite as straight-forward as it sounds—that there’s good pain (muscle soreness), and there’s bad pain, and you better differentiate the two if you want to stay injury-free.

Oftentimes, though, we set our sights on larger goals, and to our detriment. When we read about brain-damaged football players, we think, Well, duh.  Didn’t they know that was going to hurt them? Of course sustaining multiple car-crash like blows per day will hurt you.  The reason we are so shocked by yoga causing harm is that we let ourselves believe that there is activity out there that doesn’t require the diligence of monitoring our own well-being.  We’ve been taught that we’ll succeed if we just try hard enough, but, the truth of the matter is not everything works in such a succinct pattern. 

Thus, when working harder hurts us, we blame the exercise.  It’s much easier to blame an outside force than to say, Hey, my body just wasn’t made for this.  It’s harder still when you know someone who’s body does seem to be made for the exact same activity—who never gets sore or doesn’t struggle with back or knee pain. Instead, we say, Oh, the exercise will get to her eventually.

Chances are, you’re right: the exercise won’t continue to be the best option for her body, because our bodies change over time, as do our minds (and yes, psychological needs do play a large factor in choosing an exercise routine).  But is the key to avoiding injury avoiding the exercise altogether?  Take the plank, for example: A person holds her body in a straight line, supported by her hands and toes.  Great core stabilization exercise, not necessarily going to cause you injury if you make sure you keep the posture correct (which isn’t too hard, with the help of a mirror.)  Then you throw out your shoulder one way or another.  Go through some PT for the rotator cuff muscles, another set of wimpy muscles located in the shoulder region.  Guess what?  When you’re in PT recovering, that plank ain’t so safe anymore, because it puts a lot of stress on those shoulder stabilizers that may still need to gain strength and flexibility.  Should a gym ban the exercise that was once great for you because now, at this point in your life, it’s not a good fit for your mending body?

Consider the question from the statistical perspective: something that’s safe for the average person does not mean it’s safe for everybody, because, “average” is a derivative of many disparate individuals.  No one is running around with just the arm or leg of a child, but on average, the American family has 2.2 kids.  Some people have five kids.  Some have one.  Some have zero.  “Average” does not mean “this is what most people have.” “Average” means something that summarizes or represents the general significance of a group of different entities.

We discuss the helpfulness and risk of exercise in terms of this average, though. In actuality, we need to consider the variance and standard of deviation as well; in non-math-talk, we need to consider how many people actually fall under the umbrella of risk.  A one-mile jog will feel like nothing to a marathoner, but probably be intensely difficult—yes, even risky—for a couch potato who hasn’t run since childhood. On the other hand, most people probably would sustain brain damage from professional football practice.  In the former situation, there are more outliers to the risk umbrella than in the latter scenario.

Perhaps because of team sports, perhaps because of our cultural interest in success, perhaps for other reasons entirely, we have a collective view of fitness.  This means that, when playing team sports, we take the collective’s well-being and success into consideration over our own.  It means, too, that with individual practice, we judge what’s good for ourselves in terms of what’s “good” or “bad” for the collective—essentially, a person can walk into a strength-training class and assume that every exercise will be helpful for her, even if she has the aforementioned rotator cuff injury or knee problems or a lack of coordination that puts herself and those around her at risk.  Similarly, the chosen exercise may not challenge her enough, and therefore reduce her gains.

More simply, we need to examine our tendency to put others’ opinions ahead of our own needs—whether proving ourselves to a team or push ourselves to a higher challenge—and our tendency to discredit the messages our bodies give because of what we think we should do.  Vomiting after getting hit in the head?  Maybe you shouldn’t do that sport that gets you pummeled so much.  Twinges in your back after that yoga pose?  Maybe you should reconsider your position, or see if there’s a modification that will allow you to get the benefits of the pose while responding to your limitations—even if it means you won’t be able to do something cool or that you feel you “should” be able to do. 

This is not to say one should live without challenge; the only way to improve is to push oneself beyond one’s previous limits.  At the same time, though, we need to consider how we choose our challenges and why. Perhaps the overall lesson is not that one exercise or another is especially risky.  Instead, the danger lies in considering an exercise solely in terms of wins or losses, failures or successes.


One thought on “Beware: This exercise might kill you.

  1. Nice article!

    It is possible that there are liability issues involved, too, in the decision of a gym to have or not have a list of banned exercises. If there is a list of banned exercises, and someone trainers still use some of the banned exercises and a client gets hurt, the gym could be successfully sued. If the exercise were not banned, it would be much harder to sue the gym.

    Also, the existence of the list of banned exercises raises the question if “anything goes” otherwise–even slight variations on the banned exercises.

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