Exercising is obviously good for parents, but when a workout is too strenuous the consequences can be much worse than a sore back. Muscles can tear to a point where they release toxic proteins into the bloodstream, a condition known as rhabdomyolysis or rhabdo. Severe cases can lead to irreversible kidney damage and even death if left untreated. It’s not a reason to skip the gym, but it is important to be aware of the real risks.
“Rhabdomyolysis occurs when muscles get severely damaged and leak their proteins into the bloodstream,” explains emergency room physician Dr. Kimberly Brown. The kidneys will attempt to filter these proteins out but, Brown notes, “The proteins are bigger than what a healthy kidney can handle, so it damages the kidney’s filtration system, leading to kidney damage or failure.”
What’s troubling is that the onset of rhabdo can occur without symptoms which makes it more difficult for doctors to diagnose. When symptoms do occur they include muscle pain and swelling, extreme fatigue, nausea, vomiting, and decreased and discolored red or brown urine. Urine might also resemble tea or soda. Rhabdo is typically treated with fluid therapy, which flushes harmful protein out of the system, but sometimes dialysis is required to accomplish this.
The good news is that rhabdo is relatively rare with approximately 26,000 cases in the U.S. per year. The bad news is that there are certain things that moms and dads may unintentionally do to make themselves more vulnerable to such tears. Antidepressants can raise one’s rhabdo risk, along with overdoing it at the gym, research shows. For parents who may manage their postpartum depression or their mental health in general with the help of medication and exercise, that’s no reason to refrain from either healthy coping skills. However, it is a good reason to not push too hard, physical therapist and athletic trainer Keaton Ray warns.
“If you are unconditioned to exercise or have not been consistent in a training pattern, heavy lifting or excess conditioning may result in excessive muscle breakdown and eventual rhabdomyolysis,” Ray says.
Brown agrees and adds that beyond avoiding overly strenuous exercise, the biggest rhabdo risk parents run is working out while dehydrated. So the best thing parents can do to reduce this risk is drinking more water, stretch properly, and take breaks when needed, especially if they’re becoming physically active after a bit of hiatus to, let’s say, have a baby.
“The most common way to prevent rhabdomyolysis is to maintain hydration before, during and after strenuous exercise,” Brown says. “Ensure you are drinking the recommended amount of water daily, and increase as your activity level increases.”