by Michelle Sutton-Kerchner
An intense workout gets amazing results. But, do you know when to back off …
Inflammation is a normal aspect of our body’s everyday life. Although it conjures up images of ice packs, ibuprofen, and elevated limbs, in reality it’s not always to be feared. Rather, inflammation is an ongoing process used to heal ourselves of daily wear-and-tear. For the wise exerciser, it acts as a gauge of when to ease up, move on, or switch gears.
Inflammation helps the body recover stronger from a powerful workout. Too much may cause it to hinder this process and possibly lead to injury. Accept inflammation as a natural part of your fitness progression. Use the signals it triggers to guide you through your workout.
Inflammation works with the body’s immune system. It helps protect the body against everything from muscle strains to the common cold. It can present in short-term flare-ups, such as with a sprained ankle, or in chronic conditions, like sinus infections or Lyme disease.
When the body gets injured or infected, the immune system expands blood vessels leading to that area and shuts off those traveling from it. Inflammatory cytokines and white blood cells saturate the offended area for repair. Once the area is strengthened, trauma minimized, and infection eliminated, the body reopens the exiting blood vessels. Swelling of the area diminishes, allowing you (on the outside) to know healing has occurred.
Be Cautious of a Good Workout Gone Bad
Inflammation tends to build up when a fitness newbie approaches exercise with too much zest. Exercise veterans are not exempt though. Increasing a workout’s intensity and duration, or introducing new formats, can lead to inflammation. A little healthy inflammation helps prevent injuries and coaches us through a workout (e.g., when to stop, correct form, or come back to reality– not all of us are pro athletes).
Ignoring small aches or fatigued muscles leads to injury and, possibly, additional damage beyond the troubled area. When you don’t allow proper recovery and rest periods after each workout session, the body produces an abundance of inflammation. While trying to repair damage, healthy muscles and tissue cells become negatively affected by these high levels of inflammation.
When the body becomes overwhelmed by inflammation, chronic situations may develop, such as arthritis. This is also true when areas are inflamed for reasons other than exercise. For example, continued sinus inflammation from ongoing head colds can make one susceptible to sinus infections. Therefore, it’s essential to practice balance at all times. Exercise, rest, recover.
Aches and minor pains during a workout may not only signal a need to rest. Check with a personal trainer or fitness instructor. Your mechanics or form may be incorrect. Or, weaker muscles may cause strong ones to overcompensate and suffer. By sharing your workout with a fitness professional, you assure a routine that fits your body’s unique and evolving needs.
Often, inflammation is not acknowledged until it’s too late. Unlike a cut or bruise, developing inflammation is typically buried in muscles and tissue. It can’t be seen. If you struggle to recognize your limits during a workout, you may push yourself into a bout of tendonitis or worse.
Have a personal trainer create a fitness program that is safe for you. Customized to your skill level, this program challenges you within acceptable boundaries. You can experience the “fitness rush” and healthy fatigue without crossing the boundary into couch arrest.
Want to Work Out Harder & Longer?
As you become more fit, your body develops an improved ability to adapt to inflammation. Through this process, you can handle more physical stress. Duration and intensity of exercise can increase without easily wearing down muscles. Recovery time also improves.
A recent study reported in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise indicated 12 weeks of aerobic exercise and strength training significantly decreased inflammatory markers in both young and mature individuals. (Compounds that are markers for inflammation can be detected in blood tests.) Those who exercise regularly reduce stress and fat levels in the body, which helps keep inflammation levels healthy. The result: You go farther and stronger in your fitness journey.
The avid exerciser may not recognize inflammation, even though it’s a natural part of any workout. There may not be a definitive ache or strain; however, micro-traumas are common in high-energy workouts. These tiny injuries affect muscles, bones, joints, and connective tissue. During rest, cytokines hit the scene and rebuild the area to make it more durable. In this sense, inflammation is a tolerance-builder that helps take a workout to the next level. A rest and recovery period is necessary, even if you don’t feel the pain.
Cross training allows the best use of your workout time. Your rest period doesn’t need to be spent lazing around. Use time away from your standard routine to focus on other aspects of fitness. If you maxed out on the Exercise Floor, hit the pool for a blast of impact-free cardio. Perhaps you regularly use the rowing equipment. Alternate with cycling or another modality that has lower-body focus. Experts advise allowing 48 hours between weightlifting sessions.
According to Dr. Barry Sears, president of the Inflammation Research Foundation in Massachusetts, “The more vigorous your workouts, the more inflammation you’ll produce. A good diet helps lower inflammation so you can do more high-intensity training with faster recovery.” Post-workout, be sure to consume adequate amounts of water, carbohydrates, and protein. The amounts needed to accelerate repair vary based on your workout’s intensity.
Unhealthy fats (trans and saturated) found in processed foods are known to increase inflammation and the pain it can cause. When battling inflammation, choose lean cuts of meat, and low-fat cheese and milk. Although these food sources are needed for vitamins and minerals, you should watch the quantity and fat percentage of these products.
Omega-3 essential fatty acids strike again, this time as anti-inflammatory agents. Snack on walnuts, flax seeds, and pumpkin seeds. Eat more cold-water oily fish. Cook with olive oil, rice bran oil, grape seed oil, and walnut oil.
Protein builds healthy body tissue. Enjoy lean poultry, fish and seafood, nuts, legumes, and seeds. Soybeans and tofu are also good protein sources. Whole grains are an excellent source of fiber, which reduces inflammation.
Regularly consume dark green and brightly colored vegetables and berries. Blueberries and strawberries are especially packed with anti-inflammatory phytochemicals and antioxidants. Pomegranates may also provide relief from chronic inflammatory conditions, such as osteoarthritis.
Keep inflammation under control by replenishing with rest. Proper breathing and hydration is also essential to nourish muscles. Recognize the signals inflammation gives you, like that healthy post-workout ache or soreness. Don’t dread it. Use it to invite rest, another element that helps your body grow stronger. Consider it a natural part of your fitness routine.
“Anti-inflammatory Foods,” by Shereen Jegtvig at www. about.com.
“How to Recover from a Tough Workout,” by Kristina Grish at www.fitnessmagazine.com
Anti-inflammatory (introductory photo): © Rolffimages at www.dreamstime.com.
Arthritis tree: http://www.flickr.com/photos/keoni101/5656118226/
Weights: © Lisavan at www.dreamstime.com.
Post-workout drink: © Eastwestim at www.dreamstime.com.