Common exercise mistakes that can ruin your health

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS
Published October 7, 2020

Key Takeaways

Exercise is an enjoyable and effective means to a healthy lifestyle. But improper exercise can result in injury.

Physicians must be mindful of conditions, diseases, and/or injuries that might complicate exercise, and discuss these with patients for exercising safely. If your patient with severe back pain or osteoarthritis, for example, lacked this insight and desired to run, this could exacerbate their existing conditions. The same level of insight should be applied to your own exercise choices as well. 

In addition to improper choice of exercise, here are five other exercise mistakes to avoid.

Flawed technique

Proper technique entails performing exercises in a slow and controlled manner, engaging in full range of motion, and lifting at a comfortable level.

Specifically, while doing planks or push-ups, do not arch your back or you’ll risk back injury. Furthermore, during lunges or squats, it’s important to avoid bending too deeply to avoid knee injury. 

The NHS provides some essential advice on proper technique for a variety of exercises, including bicep curls, planks, stomach crunches, chest presses, and lat pulldowns.

Insufficient rest

When exercising the same muscle groups, take 48 hours of rest in between to recover and rebuild. Enhance recovery by working different muscle groups on alternate days. 

Working the same muscle groups every day can cause injury. Muscles need at least 48 hours of rest after a strength workout to recover and rebuild. One way to mix things up could be devoting Mondays to arms, Tuesdays to legs, Wednesdays to chest, Thursday to back, and Fridays to shoulders (and Saturdays to a bowl of gelato and a movie on Netflix).

Insufficient hydration

Adequate hydration allows the muscles to work more efficiently by facilitating the delivery of blood by the heart. Fluids also contribute to joint cushioning and help maintain a healthy heart rate and blood pressure.

Healthy people need 6 to 8 cups of fluids per day, and more if exercising. Thirst can be an inaccurate indicator of fluid needs. According to the experts, if you feel thirsty while exercising, then you are probably already dehydrated.

To gauge water needs, weigh yourself before and after exercise, and replace every pound of weight lost with one pint of water intake.  Alternatively, urine concentration can serve as a sign of hydration, with pale urine indicating a well-hydrated status and dark urine indicating dehydration. Of note, lack of perspiration during exercise can be an ominous sign, and portends heat exhaustion.

Importantly, rehydration can vary by constitution, climate, and amount of clothing worn. “A person who perspires heavily will need to drink more than someone who doesn’t, according to the American Heart Association. “Certain medical conditions, such as diabetes or heart disease, may also mean you need to drink more water. People with cystic fibrosis have high concentrations of sodium in their sweat and also need to use caution to avoid dehydration. And some medications can act as diuretics, causing the body to lose more fluid.”

Water is the ideal fluid of choice for rehydration. Fruits and vegetables with high water content can also serve as fluid sources. Sports drinks with electrolytes may be helpful with high-intensity vigorous exercise or in sweltering heat, but for most, this option should be saved as a treat for special occasions (like when you’re running that marathon).  Sports drinks, after all, often contain plenty of calories and added sugars.


Life happens, and missing the occasional workout session is human—especially for a busy physician. But on the aggregate, make regular exercise a part of your routine. Although some exercise is better than none, you should not relegate it to the occasional weekend or weekday.

“We know 150 minutes each week sounds like a lot of time, but it’s not. That could be 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week,” recommended the CDC.

“The good news is that you can spread your activity out during the week, so you don’t have to do it all at once. You can even break it up into smaller chunks of time during the day,” they added.

Alternatively, 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity, such as running or jogging, broken up during the course of the week can suffice. 

Notably, a mix of moderate and vigorous activity could work if done 2 or more days a week.

Remember that strength training is also important and should include 2 or more days a week of resistance exercise spanning all major muscle groups: legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders, and arms.

Engaging the phone

It’s tempting to spend nearly every free minute poring over a smartphone or internet-enabled device. Whether in line at the grocery store, eating lunch, or waiting for an appointment, smart devices are a constant companion. But remember that exercise should be productive, not idle. Working out while distracted by an iPhone or Android device can interfere with focus, workout efficacy, and even mood, experts say.

Using a smartphone while working out can result in direct injury, per an experimental study published in Performance Enhancement & Health. Researchers found that postural stability was significantly worse while texting/talking vs listening to music. 

“Cell phone texting and talking negatively affects performance on other tasks such as postural stability by requiring divided attention between dual tasks,” according to the authors. “Disruptions in postural stability can possibly predispose individuals to other greater inherent risks such as musculoskeletal injuries.”

If you must use your phone during the workout, set strict limits on how long and how many times you check it. If you like to record footage of your workouts with your phone, keep this task for the end.

Better yet, if you don’t want to end up on the wrong end of a treadmill, set your smartphone aside for 150 minutes a week. The world will wait.

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