Do we really need to warm up before exercise?

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February 5, 2008

Yesterday after my strength training class, Grace came up to me to ask a question.

“Lately, I’ve noticed that when my husband and I start on a hike I get dizzy, just for a little while, then it goes away. But it has me worried, why am I getting dizzy and what should I do about it?”

Good question Grace, and thank you for giving me a chance to remind everyone that we all need a warm-up before embarking on an exercise routine. Grace, it turns out, has low blood pressure, but this would be even more important it she suffered from high blood pressure or any circulatory problems. Going from a standstill to a vigorous movement rapidly without giving the body a chance to warm up to the activity is not the best way to improve health.

A good warm-up prepares the body for action by gradually progressing from rest to vigorous activity. This avoids undue stress on the body, reduces the risk of injury to muscles and joints and makes the workout more comfortable–in her case avoiding dizziness. We achieve these goals through continuous rhythmic movements, often imitating the anticipated moves in an easy, gentle way. As muscles warm up they produce energy and release heat. The goal of a warm up is to increase body temperature by about 2 degrees. We should look for a warmed up, loose, ready to go feeling.

A proper warm up decreases the risk of muscle injury by preparing the muscles, warming them and making them more pliable, more flexible, and more durable. It also increases oxygen flow to the muscles, and throughout the body, preparing it for action.

Warmed up bodies burn calories more effectively and more rapidly than a cold body. A gradual increase also helps prepare the cardiovascular system by increasing heart rate, blood flow, stroke volume, cardiac out-put and breathing rate. A warmer body improves nerve transmissions, helping us respond more quickly and easily to movement changes with increased coordination.

Abrupt physical exertion can cause arrhythmias and abnormal increases in blood pressure. It takes the heart a while to respond to increased demand; even the fit person can have a problem with lack of blood oxygen if proper warm-up is not observed. A gradual warm up allows the body to call on the appropriate energy systems to gradually move from rest to vigorous movement.

No, stretches are not warm ups. Save the stretches for after the exercise, when muscles are warm and pliable. For a warm-up, introduce the change in exertion slowly, if you are off for a run, start with a jog; off for a jog, start with a march; off for a walk, a slow paced march. As you move begin to swing the arms with increasing speed and range, take larger steps, add some sideways steps and arm reaches, round and arch the back, roll the shoulders, tilt and rotate the head, all with gradually increasing speed and intensity. Look for a nice warm, loose feeling that signals that your body is adequately prepared and ready to go.

There will probably be no moment-of-truth, or abrupt change from warm up to activity. Instead you should look for a smooth flow from gradual increase to comfortably moderate, graduating to vigorous activity, having warmed up and prepared the muscles, heart, and circulatory system for the fun to come.

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  1. lynn difley

    Hi Curt, do you by any chance have access to a pool? I think that water exercise, done at first with no impact, a flotation belt in a deep pool for instance, and then gradually increasing the load until rehabilitation is accomplished is the greatest way to go. I’ve watched lots of knee replacements and injuries come and have positive success with water exercise. good luck

  2. curt

    Great timing for us. My wife is just starting to rehabilitate after breaking her knee cap. Thanks, Curt