The surface you exercise on can affect your risk of injury


Most dance studios have sprung floors with a rigid surface and a shock-absorbent layer underneath, making them the writer's favourite workout surface. — Photos: 123rf.com

Covid-19 has forced all of us to make adjustments and rethink a lot of things, including the way we exercise.

With the long closures of gyms and parks, fitness buffs have resorted to setting up their own mini home gyms to stay active.

Gym equipment such as treadmills, stationary bicycles, dumbbells, barbell sets and exercise balls were some of the highest-selling products from e-commerce platforms last year (2020).

The men stocked up on weight-training equipment, while women opted for yoga mats, light dumbbells and skipping ropes.

Whether these people followed live classes virtually or pre-recorded ones on YouTube, online sports equipment sellers were obviously a happy bunch as their sales soared.

One of my neighbours recently invested in a punching bag, which sits in his partially-covered driveway.

Every other afternoon, I hear the whacks and thuds as punches fly to the commands of the instructor.

The other senior neighbour bought himself a bicycle, wears a hat and cycles around his garden.

As his fence is a high wall, we only get to see his hat moving around in circles.

It’s indeed wonderful to witness fellow Malaysians trying to improve their health and boost their immune system via exercise.

However, while the focus is on purchasing equipment, shoes and attire, many people pay little attention to the surface or floor they are working out on.

Pounding on concrete

Half of urban dwellers live in apartments and condominiums, which means they’re probably exercising on concrete surfaces at home, perhaps sans shoes too.

Concrete floors interfere with your body’s natural ability to absorb shock.

All that constant pounding (assuming you’re doing cardiorespiratory endurance activities) on a hard surface can cause a gamut of problems such as bunions, ingrown toenails, shin splints, back strain, knee pain and Achilles tendonitis, in the long run.

It can also lead to stress fractures and worsen arthritis symptoms.

If you’re an exercise newbie, your form may be incorrect; this, compounded with hard flooring, increases your chances of getting injured.

With good technique and bad flooring, you can still get injured, but the risk is lower.

The popularity of group fitness classes and easily-obtainable certification for workout specialities have resulted in classes being held in school cafeterias, condominium corridors, community halls or any space big enough to accommodate students.

But these floors were not built with exercise in mind, especially cardiovascular workouts that require repetitive movements.

Having said that, good technique and good flooring doesn’t totally eliminate your risk of injury as there are other factors to take into consideration, such as hydration, diet, sleep, etc.

Personal preferences

These affordable interlinked foam tiles can not only function as a child’s playmat, but also exercise flooring for all ages.These affordable interlinked foam tiles can not only function as a child’s playmat, but also exercise flooring for all ages.

We all have our workout floor preferences and our favourite exercise spot may not be another person’s choice.

For instance, one of my good friends will never walk on the road (asphalt) or concrete surfaces.

The moment her foot strikes the hard ground, her knees scream for mercy, despite the surface being flat.

She’s into cycling, trail running and hiking, and when racing up steep hills, her knees are pain-free – and you can’t even catch her!

With the parks currently closed in the state she resides in, she’d rather just stretch and preserve her joints instead of taking a walk around the neighbourhood.

Yet another friend posted a video of himself on Facebook skipping rope barefooted on the road in front of his house, wearing a weighted vest.

Our mutual friends expressed horror and admiration.

An avid marathon runner, this friend claims that is how he strengthens his foot muscles.

Call me biased, but having danced for 30-odd years, I still like sprung wooden floors the best.

Sprung floors have a rigid surface and a shock-absorbent layer underneath, which makes them popular in sporting arenas, gyms, dance studios and performance venues.

The spring in the floor can come from a few different sources or combinations of sources, e.g. a wood basket weave created from cross-laid battens under the panels, neoprene or rubber pads, a layer of foam rubber, or coil springs for additional bounce.

Whether I’m jumping or rolling on the floor, the surface enables me to have a softer landing and lessens the impact on my joints.

Grass and sand

Walking on sand, which is inherently unstable, forces all the smaller muscle groups in the feet to kick into gear to help maintain balance. — Photos: FilepicWalking on sand, which is inherently unstable, forces all the smaller muscle groups in the feet to kick into gear to help maintain balance. — Photos: Filepic

Grass is actually one of the best surfaces to exercise on, as its naturally spongy texture prevents serious strain on joints.

If you do take a tumble, chances of you getting an open wound are also minimal.

When choosing a grassy spot to exercise on, keep a lookout for debris and sharp objects that may cause you to trip, fall or sprain an ankle.

It’s also vital to choose an area that’s relatively flat, as bumpy terrain, hills or ditches can easily throw you off balance and potentially cause injury.

The only drawback is that your clothes are likely to get dirty if the grass is wet or muddy.

My second favourite exercise terrain would be sand (by the beach, of course).

I don’t even have to run – just brisk walking (without shoes) is enough to get my heart rate up and engage so many different muscle groups.

Because sand is inherently unstable, the smaller stabilising muscles throughout your body have to work harder to keep you on your feet.

Unsurprisingly, Australian researchers found that the energy expended exercising on sand is up to 1.6 times greater than that of exercising on grass.

Since not many of us can get to the beach at this time, we have to find alternative floorings to be kind to our joints.

Create your own flooring

Grass has a naturally soft texture that is gentle on the joints, even if you take a tumble.Grass has a naturally soft texture that is gentle on the joints, even if you take a tumble.

One of the most affordable mats on the market are foam tiles that can be interlinked and used as playmats for children.

These are thick enough to provide sufficient padding for most exercises and you can choose how large (or small) an area you want to cover.

They are easy on the wallet and can be cleaned, installed and dismantled easily.

During the last movement control order, I assembled a four feet by four feet (1.2m by 1.2m) tap dance surface using foam tiles as the base, a sheet of plywood in the middle and a vinyl flooring on the surface.

A friend glued it together and this DIY (do it yourself) flooring provides adequate cushioning for my joints, although it’ll probably be another two months before I can dance again due to my broken foot.

So, do give a thought to the type of flooring you work out on to keep yourself safe.

If you only plan on doing weightlifting, then a rubber floor is probably best as it will not get damaged if you accidentally drop the weights.

But rubber and carpet surfaces are pretty dangerous for cardiovascular workouts (think Zumba or high intensity interval training) as there is too much traction with sports shoes.

The friction created, especially while doing turns, can easily cause you to torque your knee or twist your ankle.

Torquing your knee means that your foot gets stuck to the floor, but your knee joint keeps moving.

The result: overstretched or torn ligaments and knee pain.

Rubber mats and carpet are okay for yoga, Pilates or strength workouts where you are only standing and lifting, not turning or twisting.

If you already have a carpet, you can add rubber flooring on top to protect your carpet from sweat.

It’s also much more hygienic as carpets are hard to clean and smell when damp.

Whatever you choose, do use proper footwear to protect the ankles and knees, even if it feels strange to be wearing shoes indoors.

Revathi Murugappan is a certified fitness trainer who tries to battle gravity and continues to dance to express herself artistically and nourish her soul. For more information, email starhealth@thestar.com.my. The information contained in this column is for general educational purposes only. Neither The Star nor the author gives any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to such information. The Star and the author disclaim all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.

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