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Preventing fitness injuries

Playing a sport or doing any other regular exercise is essential for good health. But whether you’re kicking a football, playing golf or jogging around the local park, you don’t want an injury to stop you in your tracks.

What causes fitness injuries?

There are many different causes but common reasons are a fall, a sudden twisting movement or exercising intensely without warming up first. Some injuries are acute, meaning they happen suddenly — like a sprained ankle. Others are chronic and develop gradually — for example, when a ligament or tendon is overused by repeating the same movement over time.

General tips for preventing injury

Warm up

Whether you’re playing a sport, lifting weights or going for a brisk walk, it pays to warm up first. Cold muscles are more likely to be injured — by increasing circulation to the muscles, a warm up can help prevent injury, especially if you’re an early morning exerciser who’s just awake. When the weather is colder, it’s best to spend more time warming up.

How you warm up depends on the activity you’re doing — the idea is to warm up the major muscles you’ll be using by doing some light exercise. If you’re walking or jogging, Smartplay suggests a two to three minute brisk walk or jog which raises a light sweat to warm up your leg muscles before you step up the pace. If your activity includes using your upper body, you need to warm up those muscles too — with basketball, for instance, you could do a few gentle throws or shoots. If you’re lifting weights, then use a light weight to do a few slow, low-intensity repetitions.

What about stretching — does it help prevent injury?

Not necessarily. Although stretching before and after a workout is often recommended to prevent injury, recent Australian research suggests that although it may help prevent muscle soreness after exercise, stretching doesn’t significantly reduce injury risk. But it’s still worth stretching warm muscles after exercise. A five to 10 minute stretching session emphasising the major groups of muscles you have just used can help your body get rid of muscle waste products and help reduce soreness and stiffness.

Wear the right gear

The right footwear for your activity is important. Shoes need to provide stability and support. If the activity involves high-impact movement, shoes need to cushion this impact. If your activity requires a helmet, mouthguard, shin pads or wrist, elbow or knee guards, they need to be fitted properly and be in good condition.

Mix up your fitness activities

Adding variety to your fitness routine (also known as cross training) can help prevent overuse injuries caused by doing the same movements over and over again. Vary a routine of jogging by cycling or swimming, for example. Or include some strength training sessions into your routine. This has two advantages — it varies your activities and also helps prevent injury by improving muscle strength. Strengthening the leg muscles that help support the knee can help prevent knee injuries, for instance.

Get the right technique

Inexperience or doing movements incorrectly (poor form) is another cause of injury. Advice from a qualified coach can help ensure correct technique.

See your doctor

If you’re pregnant, overweight, lead a mostly inactive lifestyle, have heart disease or a family history of heart disease or have any health or musculoskeletal problems you should check with your doctor before starting an exercise program to make sure the activity is appropriate for you.

Stay hydrated and sun-safe

Drink water before, during and after exercise to stay hydrated. If you’re exercising outdoors, protect your skin from the sun with spf30 sunscreen and a hat.

Common fitness or sports injuries


A sprain is a stretched or torn ligament (ligaments are bands of tissue that attach bones to joints). Falling, twisting movements or a blow can all cause a sprain. Ankle and wrist sprains are common. Symptoms include pain, swelling and bruising.


A strain is a stretched or torn muscle or tendon (a tendon is tissue connecting muscle to bone). Strains can be caused by pulling or twisting a muscle or tendon. Strains in the back muscles or hamstrings (the muscle at the back of the thigh) are common. Symptoms include pain, muscle spasms, swelling and difficulty moving the area where the stretched or torn muscle is located.

Knee injuries

Knee injuries can be caused by a fall, a blow to the knee while playing contact sports, overuse, jumping, sudden changes of direction or suddenly stopping. These actions are common in many sports. High-risk activities for knees include skiing, basketball and running. Improving flexibility and muscle strength around the knee can help prevent knee injuries.

What should I do if I’m injured?

The general advice for minor soft-tissue injuries such as strains and sprains is to apply the RICER remedy. RICER stands for:

  • Rest — stop what you’re doing. Continuing the activity can cause more injury or bleeding.
  • Ice — apply an ice pack wrapped in a clean cloth (or ice in a plastic bag or wrapped in a clean wet towel) to the injury and surrounding area for 10–20 minutes every two hours. This helps to reduce swelling and pain. But don’t apply the ice pack or ice directly to the skin — it can cause ice burns.
  • Compression — apply a firm, elastic, non-adhesive bandage. This can be applied over an ice pack and above and below the injury to hold it in place. You should also apply compression over the injury site even when you’re not icing the area. Compression helps reduce swelling and bleeding. Remove the bandage before sleep.
  • Elevation — raise the injured part above the level of the heart if possible — this helps reduce bleeding, swelling and pain.
  • Referral — refer to your doctor and other appropriate health professionals for diagnosis and management.

Further Information


Monash University Accident Research Centre


Better Health Channel. Exercise — injury prevention. [online] Melbourne, VIC: State Government of Victoria. c2010 [last updated 20 Aug 2010, accessed 26 Aug 2010] Available from:

Bracko MR. Knowing risks often prevents serious sporting injuries. ACSM Fit Society Page. Summer 2001: 6.

Cancer Council. Sun safety for sport and recreation. [online] Woolloomooloo, NSW: Cancer Council NSW. 2007 [accessed 26 Aug 2010] Available from:

Jamtvedt G Herbert RD Flottorp S et al. A pragmatic randomised trial of stretching before and after physical activity to prevent injury and soreness. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 2009; doi:10.1136/bjsm.2009.062232

Mayo Clinic. Knee pain — risk factors. [online] Mayo Foundation for Medical Research and Education. c1998–2010 [last updated 9 Sept 2008, accessed 26 Aug 2010] Available from:

Medline Plus. Sports injuries. [online] Bethseda, MD: National Library of Medicine. [last updated 23 Mar 2010, accessed 26 Aug 2010] Available from:

Smartplay. Fact sheet: Warm Up / Stretching. [online] Kidman Park, SA: Sports Medicine Australia (SA Branch). [accessed 23 Aug 2010] Available from:

Smartplay. Managing injuries. [online] Kidman Park, SA: Sports Medicine Australia (SA Branch). 2001 [last updated 14 Jun 2001, accessed 25 Aug 2010] Available from:

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This information has been developed and reviewed for Bupa by health professionals. To the best of their knowledge it is current and based on reputable sources of medical research. It should be used as a guide only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical or other health professional advice.

Bupa Australia Pty Ltd makes no warranties or representations regarding the completeness or accuracy of the information. Bupa Australia is not liable for any loss or damage you suffer arising out of the use of or reliance on the information. Except that which cannot be excluded by law. We recommend that you consult your doctor or other qualified health professional if you have questions or concerns about your health. For more details on how we produce our health content, visit the About our health information page.

Last published 31 October 2010