“Watch Out for Sports!”: What Dangers of Exercise Neurosurgeon Steven Barrer has written a book about how fashionable running, biking, yoga and crossfit can harm your health
We were the first generation to make sports a cult. Previous generations, up to our parents’ generation, were not like that. They didn’t need it. People just had a more active lifestyle. There were more workers and farmers, and they were surrounded by fewer machines and vehicles. Children, without computers and other electronic gadgets, played outside all day long. People ate healthier foods – fresh, processed, frozen, hormone- and antibiotic-infused convenience foods were much less prevalent. We baby boomers, on the other hand, have mostly become manual laborers, lead sedentary lifestyles, and have very questionable eating habits. In an attempt to maintain our health and slim figures, we take to the courts and stadiums, exercise in gyms, run on treadmills, pedal on bicycles, and exhaust ourselves in hundreds of other ways. Many of us, and younger ones as well, go to extremes in these efforts.
I contend that exercising can harm your health in several ways. Injuries can result from even the simplest and easiest physical activities. In addition, the cumulative effects of the most trivial injuries, or simply the prolonged overexertion of our joints and muscles even when we are not injured, pose serious dangers. Excessive exercise is dangerous.
The pain of exercise
“No pain, no result.” This maxim from the world of sports and physical education is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. And I’ve heard it from the mouths of people who are considered experts in sports and healthy lifestyles. There are even PhDs who subscribe to this idiotic philosophy. It seems to me that all of these people are extremely ignorant of the physiology of injuries. Pain makes us realize that something bad has happened. It can lead to an immediate reflex reaction, such as a momentary contraction of the muscles that yank our hand away from the hot stove.
When a fitness instructor yells at you from the TV screen, “Make your muscles burn!” – don’t believe this sadist.
If any type of physical activity hurts you, then that activity is not right for you. It is doing you harm. Pain is a signal, a huge red flag that your body is waving in your face, warning you that you need to stop these activities immediately and let it repair the damage it has done. When a fitness instructor yells at you from the TV screen, “Make your muscles burn!” – don’t believe this sadist. Your muscles are supposed to work, not burn. As soon as they start to burn, STOP! Stop working out before the muscle injury begins, not after that point. If your muscles are really burning, especially as a result of overexertion, they need rest and sometimes treatment. And in this case, it is less likely that you will be able to go back to the exercise when you want to, and less likely that you will want to go back to it at all.
When you overload your muscles, anaerobic glycolysis kicks in. This is a physiological condition where the muscle, which normally breaks down glucose with oxygen consumption (aerobic glycolysis), is no longer able to do so. As a result, it breaks down glucose without oxygen consumption. A byproduct of this method of energy production is lactic acid. It accumulates in the muscles and causes soreness, heaviness, and sometimes cramps – in short, everything we think of as muscle fatigue.
Boom, boom, boom.
Imagine you are driving a stake into the ground in your garden. You’re holding a heavy sledgehammer in your hands and hitting the stake with it as hard as you can. Think of the force you’re caving in to drive it into the dense earth. Now imagine your leg as you run. And your body weighing 60, 70, 80, or more pounds that presses its entire mass against your foot with every step, meter by meter, kilometer by kilometer, sometimes for an hour, for months, years, or decades.
Boom, boom, boom.
Not at all the picture the manufacturers of athletic shoes would like to conjure up in your imagination. But it is one that accurately reflects reality. I have tried to calculate what cumulative force, in kilograms per square centimeter, affects a runner’s foot over the course of a lifetime. I won’t bore you with complicated calculations and numbers, I will only say that the force is enormous. Estimates of the prevalence of running-related injuries vary widely; some put the figure as high as 79%. One study found that 37% to 56% of people who run regularly are injured in one way or another each year. Every year! That means that most runners are injured in some way once a year, and some more than once a year.
I have tried to calculate what the cumulative force, in kilograms
per square centimetre that is exerted on a runner’s leg over a lifetime.
Although the foot and ankle take the brunt of the load, the knees are the most frequently injured during running. The second most injury prone are the feet and ankles (ankles), followed by the hips, then the lower back (this is my “territory”), the hip muscles and tendons, the calves, the upper back and neck (also my “territory”).
If you do decide to take up running, first of all you need to choose good athletic shoes. Unfortunately, they have become ridiculously expensive today, and there is such a huge variety of sneakers of all models and styles offered in stores that it’s hard to figure out which ones actually provide the promised high degree of protection and performance. I suspect none. But if you’re lucky enough to inherit a decent fortune, go to the mall and pick out the pair of sneakers your feet feel most comfortable in. And, if you run regularly, get yourself a new pair of sneakers before the old ones fall off. Sneakers wear out even faster than your joints. Whenever possible, run on a soft surface. Many runners prefer asphalt trails. But asphalt is very hard, hot in summer, and slippery in winter. And it has the highest “impact index.” Paths on sports fields and stadiums are often coated with composite material and spring better, reducing the “body impact index.” Fields and other natural surfaces are even softer, but, as mentioned above, they carry hidden dangers. Indoor surfaces, if synthetic, are softer than outdoor surfaces.
Along with the growing popularity of bicycling, road biking and mountain biking, the number of injuries associated with them is also increasing. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, Americans suffered about 554,000 bicycle injuries in 2009. Among children, that number was 300,000 injuries, 15,000 of which required hospitalization. Thus, cycling is one of the most traumatic recreational sports.
Injuries range from minor (abrasions and wounds from falls) to very serious, especially in high speed collisions (severe head injuries, multiple injuries and even death). Chronic non-traumatic injuries caused by overload and the position of the cyclist while riding are also common. Tendinitis, muscle and joint pain are common problems associated with repetitive motion patterns. Compression neuropathy of the median and ulnar nerves in the hands and genital nerves in the groin are caused by the position of the body while cycling, and another typical problem, cervical spine pain, is due to the cyclist having to extend his neck to look forward all the time.
Cycling isn’t really any different from motorcycling, except at a slightly slower speed, and we all know how dangerous motorcycles are.
It is a high-speed sport using a vehicle that offers absolutely no protection. In fact, cycling is no different from motorcycling, except at a slightly lower speed, and we all know how dangerous motorcycles are. There are ways to reduce the risk. Take care of your equipment. Have your bike checked regularly by an experienced mechanic. Keep your gears and chain clean and lubricated. Make sure the shifter is working properly, that is, that the chain moves quickly between the sprockets when you need it to. Check for defective tires: a tire blowout practically guarantees you a fall. Wear appropriate clothing, no matter how strange it may seem to you. If possible, stay off the roads with heavy traffic. Choose back roads with sparse traffic, where drivers expect to see cyclists. Ride in company.
My niece Katie recently returned from a two-month trip to India, where she studied with renowned yoga masters. To my distress, I mentioned that I was working on a book, one of the sections of which would focus on the risks associated with practicing yoga. I had never seen my niece so irritated in my life. Ignoring my attempts to explain the purpose of the book, she protested vehemently and put me on a par with the author of a recent article in The New York Times, William Broad. With forty years of yoga under his belt and a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, Broad wrote the book “Scientific Yoga. The Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards; it came out in February 2012. The book offers a very positive and optimistic view of the practice of yoga, but one chapter is devoted to the risks involved, and Brode summarized its content in an article entitled “How Yoga Can Ruin Your Body.
Teaching yoga to a large group of people with different physical fitness and health histories actually provokes injury
In his Times article, Brode discusses not only the typical injuries of yoga classes, but also why they occur and, therefore, makes recommendations on how to avoid or at least minimize them. He also describes a serious group of injuries that can impair blood flow to the brain and lead to a stroke. In exploring these negative effects of exercise, he cites such an authority in the yoga world as Glenn Black. Although yoga has always had an aura of a healing art, Black argues that only people in excellent health can practice it. Teaching yoga to a large group of people with different physical fitness and health histories actually provokes injury. There are no one-size-fits-all approaches to yoga. In Black’s opinion, it can be used for therapeutic purposes, but the instructor needs to know the student well enough to determine, taking all conditions into account, which postures and positions are appropriate for him and which he should avoid.
No one is safe from injury, including instructors. Black says he knows instructors who have such big back problems that they have to teach lying down! In his article, Broad accuses some masters of extolling only the benefits of yoga and hiding its darker side. “They say these classes soothe, heal, increase energy and strengthen. Indeed, yoga helps lower blood pressure, produces natural antidepressants and even improves sex life. But the yoga community has long remained silent about the staggering pain it can cause.”
Today yoga is taught almost everywhere, even in nursing homes and kindergartens. Where once the yoga community was small, all instructors were visible and their education carefully monitored, today, with the explosive growth of the army of trainers, their level of training and knowledge has decreased significantly. And if a yoga class with an inexperienced instructor offering the same exercises to everybody, regardless of individual abilities and health problems, is a recipe for injury.
Boxing, more than any other sport, is replete with examples of repeated head injuries and their unfortunate consequences. Throughout its existence, it has been known that boxers who have spent many years in the ring can develop irreversible brain damage with many colorful names, including “boxing dementia” and “boxing dementia. “Boxing dementia” falls into the category of chronic traumatic encephalopathies. This condition develops slowly but steadily over several years as a result of numerous blows to the head. Knockouts are the most dangerous – these blows are so strong that they lead to a temporary loss of consciousness. In general, however, any blow to the head, even a jab that causes a sharp movement of the head, leaves its imprint on the brain. Over time, the neurons that form the neural network of trillions of connections that ensure the normal functioning of the brain begin to die off, and dementia develops.
Boxing is like smoking cigarettes.
There is no way to smoke a cigarette
without harming your health.
Boxing is bad in all its manifestations.
In terms of the functional changes that accompany it, “boxing dementia” is similar to Alzheimer’s disease, a degenerative disease of the central nervous system that leads to senile dementia. Alzheimer’s disease is quite common in the United States, and most of you know how devastating and scary its effects are. The same thing happens to boxers. Clarity of thought disappears. The patient loses the ability to perform even the simplest of actions, such as brushing his teeth.
The situation is a little better in amateur boxing. They necessarily use protective helmets and protectors for the body, and trainers are concerned not only with fighting technique but also with the safety of the athletes. As a result, the injury rate is much lower than among professionals. But boxing is like smoking cigarettes. There is no way to smoke a cigarette without harming your health. Boxing is bad in all its forms. No helmet will save you from the possibility of getting a concussion. It’s not really the glove hitting your head that does the brain damage. It is the brain that does the damage to itself as it swings back and forth inside the cranium and hits the walls of the cranium. The result is the same. And it’s always sad.
Crossfit and extreme sports
Extreme sports don’t just go to extremes. They constantly push the boundaries of those extremes. Because these sports are not controlled by the state or by their own self-regulatory organizations, they become increasingly risky and dangerous. During the first World Extreme Winter Games, the walls of the halfpipe for snowboarding were just over 3.5 meters high; today they are almost 7 meters high. For comparison, take the equipment for any official sport, such as gymnastic equipment, such as balance beam and bars. They are standardized and have not changed for decades. They don’t get more complicated each time the athletes become more professional. In extreme sports, however, such changes are made regularly, and their purpose is not to increase the professionalism of the athletes, but to increase the level of danger.
In the last twenty years, another extreme sport, also based on the philosophy of sports without limits, has entered the sports arena: CrossFit.
Crossfit is considered suitable for almost all age groups of adults and even children. It was originally developed to train military, firefighters and police officers, but in the last decade it has entered the big world, and today thousands of fitness clubs offer their workout programs based on this method.
A typical workout program for the day might include an 800-meter run, two sets of 22 pull-ups, deadlifts and barbell throws (full squats with barbell in hand with it thrown over your head as you lift) and finally another 800-meter run.
Unlike extreme sports, whose risks are obvious – it’s clear that aerial acrobatics at high altitude are fraught with serious injury – crossfit’s inherent risks are veiled. They are hardly known to the beginner who sees CrossFit as a quick way to good physical shape and enthusiastically starts training.
How to stay fit
There are many ways to stay healthy. Many people believe that they must exercise to keep their weight in check. I have an alternative idea. The key is not to gain excess weight. This is easy to say and hard to do, especially as we get older and naturally become less mobile. So let me give you some advice that was given to me many years ago by the grandmother of an acquaintance of mine.
This woman had many long-livers in her family. Her parents are still alive, and her maternal grandmother lived to be 100 years old. I remember once asking her the secret of longevity. Her answer was elegant in its simplicity and obvious logic. “Don’t eat too much,” she said.
She was a slender woman, as were her daughter and granddaughter.