The side-effects of exercise. Some of them are positive!

abreast in a boat team

I recently wrote of the many benefits of regular physical activity. These include improvements in cardiovascular fitness, sleep quality, mood and anxiety levels and reductions in the risks for heart disease, stroke, diabetes and osteoporosis.

In fact, doctors across B.C. have been writing their patients prescriptions for exercise.

Of course, every treatment has potential side effects. Fortunately, these risks are by far outweighed by the benefits of exercise.

Musculoskeletal injuries – strains, sprains and fractures – are the most common risks of exercise. The risks depend on your chosen activity, where you exercise and your individual risks. To reduce your risk for injuries, begin at a lower intensity (i.e. walk before you run, hop before you leap), use proper equipment (i.e. appropriate footwear, helmets and other protective equipment), a safe environment (i.e. a designated bike path) and expert assistance (i.e. coaching, training and supervision).

The less common but serious risks of exercise include irregular heart rhythms, heart attacks and respiratory distress in those with asthma or chronic lung disease. Another rare risk is muscle injury so severe that it results in the rhabdomyolysis, the breakdown of muscle cells and kidney failure.

To avoid these more serious complications, understand the risks of extreme exercise, including marathons and vigorous exercise in extreme weather conditions – and if you could be at increased risk by personal or family history, consult with your doctor.

There is appropriate exercise for everyone but it has to be individualized according to your interests, physical condition and personal medical history. Like all prescriptions, the dose is important.

You can overdose on exercise. Yes, regular aerobic activity with its release of feel-good endorphins can be addictive. You’ll know you’ve been overexercising if you are getting more frequent colds, feel achy all over all the time, feel exhausted every day and suffer frequent injuries.

Often the side effects of exercise are positive and unexpected. Almost 20 years ago, Dr. Don McKenzie of the McGavin Sport Medicine Centre at U.B.C. put together a study group to dispel the myth that strenuous upper body exercise may cause lymphedema in women who have had breast cancer.

After one year, no one in the study group developed lymphedema. As a positive side effect, the women discovered that they loved paddling together so much that they founded the Abreast in a Boat Society, the world’s first dragon boat team comprised of breast cancer survivors.

The mission of the now approximately 165 members who paddle on five crews throughout the Lower Mainland is to raise awareness of breast cancer and to demonstrate that women diagnosed with breast cancer can enjoy full and active lives. For more information about these inspired women who serve as living symbols of hope, visit their website at

abreast in a boat

The safest way to begin a more active lifestyle is to join the Doctors of B.C. on Saturday, May 3rd at 9:30 am for a free and fun 2 km walk at Vancouver’s Kitsilano Beach Park. I’ll be there with many of my colleagues along with our patients. There won’t be a safer place to walk anywhere in town.

All members of the public are invited, but come early to get your free pedometer. For more information about this event, check online at

Dr. Davidicus Wong is a family physician and Physician Lead of the Burnaby Division of Family Practice. 



About Davidicus Wong

I am a family physician. I write a weekly newspaper column, Healthwise for the Vancouver Courier, Burnaby Now, Royal City Record and Richmond News.
This entry was posted in Exercise, Healthy Living, Physical Activity and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The side-effects of exercise. Some of them are positive!

  1. DavidMizrahi says:

    Great article! Although there are risks of exercising, it is important to seek advice to be completing the correct and safe intensity and volume (Accredited Exercise Physiologist in Australia, Certified Exercise Trainer in the US). There have been study links too for increased survival and reduced recurrence for active survivors. Drop by for more too!

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