Intense exercise is wrecking our bodies — as my crushed pinky can testify

    26 July 2016

    As I write this, my little finger is withering away. It has been pushed around, crushed to death by a woman I sparred a month ago at my boxing gym. ‘Mary’, she was called. She looked nice — friendly. She broke my little finger.

    Well, it’s not actually broken — as my friends repeatedly tell me. ‘You wouldn’t be able to wiggle it,’ they say, as I shove it into their eyes, desperate for some sympathy. The joint is wrecked; that’s what’s wrong. And I don’t know if it will ever be the same.

    The strange thing is: I’m not alone with my injured pinky. Across the country, young people are more rickety than ever. So much so that one orthopaedic surgeon, Gorav Datta, has told us all to toughen up — or toughen down — having seen a rise in bone and joint damage among the under-30s.

    The problem is we’re exercising too much, or at least doing the wrong sort of exercise, with young people indulging in ‘explosive’ — high intensity, high impact — workouts. These regimes not only offer the promise of great abs, but are short and easy to fit in around nights out at Tiger Tiger (and the day job).

    Across Britain, there are numerous classes to help people achieve such a workout: Body Attack, the Insanity Workout, HITT, to name a few. And when the youngsters aren’t at the gym, they’re flooded with adverts on social media showing them how to do crunches, push-ups, and anything other than relaxing.

    I can understand how the intense exercise movement was born. For their whole lives, young people have been given dire warnings about obesity, the ticking time bomb! All this has pushed them towards kale crisps and worse.

    But some of us have gone too far the other way, our battered knees the consequence. Young people desperately need to cut down on the intensity of their workouts.

    In theory, this is quite achievable. Doctors recommend cycling, swimming and low-impact activities such as yoga and pilates to help people achieve peak fitness (and not break their bones).

    What I think will be hardest, though, is addressing the psychology behind intense exercise.

    Twentysomethings live in immensely pressured times, where not all can make their mark in the way they’d like to. Exercise and eating have become mechanisms of control; we may not be able to get that Goldman Sachs gig, but we can improve our benchpress.

    Many young people feel intense guilt if they do not work out enough. They feel opiate-like addictions to the endorphins produced by exercise. They like the pain.

    In truth, they need to learn how to relax. That will be the hardest task of all, for doctors: reducing the guilt youngsters have about doing nothing. And questioning the idea that Body Attack and all the other painful classes are a route to fulfilment.

    I thought three sessions a week of boxing were doing me the world of good. But since Mary broke my finger, my sleep and general demeanour have improved, much to my surprise. It has made me realise an overzealous exercise regime does not make you happy.

    I miss my finger, too; and for that reason, I will be carefully noting the orthopaedic advice this week.