BUILD GRADUALLY: Getting fitter and stronger is a matter of progression. If you're lifting 50 pounds readily on a weight machine, you'll eventually find it pretty easy to do two or three sets at that level. That's when it's time to add another 5 pounds.
Don't push yourself too fast, though. Trying to lift too much too soon will lead you to shift the work to nearby muscles that may not be ready for the effort.
As my sister learned, an extended time away from the gym means it's time for stepping back in duration and intensity rather than leaping forward. Move back to an earlier, lower level and use that as your base for moving forward.
USE PROPER FORM: Weight trainers warn athletes to lift only as many repetitions as they can do with proper form. If you feel fatigue at rep #12, you will probably lose form by rep #15.
My cousin ran with a heavy heel strike on the outside of his foot. When his shoes became worn, they failed to give him adequate shock absorption, and they tended to exaggerate his bow legged stride, leading to knee problems. He was no longer running with proper form.
KNOW YOUR WEAKNESSES: If you tend to have knee problems, choose activities that stress them the least -- like riding an exercise bike or using an elliptical trainer. A stair stepper can be particularly hard on either the knees or the balls of the feet.
Deep knee bends or squats -- to an angle greater than 90 degrees -- are particularly hard on knees.
GET REST, CROSS TRAIN: Rest is a crucial element of building fitness. If you're lifting weights, don't work the same muscles two days in a row. For aerobic work, trainers recommend a similar hard/easy approach. Never do two consecutive hard workouts without an easy one in between. And you should always schedule at least one, preferably two, rest days a week.
Cross training is a variation on that theme. Alternating activities such as running or walking with biking or swimming allows you to rest some muscles while still getting an aerobic workout.
STRETCH, WARM UP, COOL DOWN: The value of stretching to avoid injury is controversial, but maintaining flexibility is a crucial part of fitness.
Warming up gradually for 5 to 10 minutes helps get blood flowing to muscles and makes them less vulnerable to stress. Cooling down for the last 5 minutes, bringing the heart rate slowly back to normal, is even more important. At the very least, it helps prevent muscle soreness and stiffness the following day.
Individuals who do well at exercise tend to develop a routine or ritual that brings them back and gives them satisfaction day after day. Whether you're a beginner or a seasoned veteran, make sure your routine is built around not only increased fitness but protection from injury.
This information was submitted by Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital in St. Johnsbury and is meant to complement, not replace, the advice and care you receive from your health care provider.