What happens when we can’t exercise?

with advice from Mitch Kaye, PT

If you exercise regularly, you’ve probably had one of these roadblocks at some point in your life: A sprained ankle that keeps you from running. An illness that keeps you away from the gym. Or a bigger injury that requires rehab or surgery and a rethinking of your entire fitness regime.

When your fitness routine shifts, so does the rest of your day. You may sit more, eat more and possibly gain weight. The lack of endorphins, combined with the changes you see in the mirror, don’t help your situation. It’s not unusual to get depressed when this happens.

So how can you try to take control of your body and continue to stay fit despite that injury or illness? Mitch Kaye, PT, recommends that if you have an injury, the first stop is to see your doctor or a healthcare professional. He warns against self-diagnosis and adds that your physical therapist is the ideal expert to recommend low-impact exercises that can be continued with an injury; a PT’s unique training, along with knowledge of how the injury occurred, is key to prescribing the best recovery exercises.

Older white man standing in a pool with goggles on his head and a green pool noodle around his neck.

He also recommends staying as active as possible. Perhaps you can continue to exercise but in a pool. Mitch points out that “the buoyancy factor and the warmth in a pool can provide ease in movement and can provide a good environment for exercising. A trained professional, like a physical therapist, can design a program for you to do at the pool, if appropriate, for your injury.”

A third note is to stick to your routine as much as possible. Mitch observes, “If you’re on a schedule of exercising at specific times during the week — like Monday and Wednesday mornings or every night after work — use those hours for mental exercises like meditation or reading.” Keeping that schedule throughout your recovery will make it easier to return to that schedule when you’ve healed from your injury.

Prevention, of course, is the best medicine. Working out with an awareness of your body — and its limits — will help to avoid some of these problems. Here are some tips from Mitch to keep in mind when you work out:

  • Know your limits — don’t overdo it. Having pain is a good indication to stop the activity.
  • Avoid playing sports or exercising when you’re very tired or in pain.
  • Always stretch and warm up before exercising. Make sure to stretch correctly — hold the position for 20 to 30 seconds, don’t bounce in the position, and keep your feet as flat as you can, trying not to twist your knees. Warm muscles are less susceptible to injuries.
  • Wear shoes that fit properly and provide shock absorption and stability.
  • If you’re just getting started at a new sport or activity, build gradually. You’re more likely to hurt yourself if you do too much too soon. The same goes for packing a week’s work of activity into a day or two over the weekend.
White woman stretching her legs while in a park or forest in the fall, surrounded by trees and yellow and brown leaves on the ground.
  • Run on soft, flat surfaces rather than asphalt or concrete. Remember that running uphill may increase the stress on your Achilles tendon, as well as your legs.
  • Adequately train for your specific sport. A physical therapist can help you determine exercises to condition your body for your particular passion.
  • Avoid bending your knees past 90 degrees.
  • Use protective gear like helmets and knee or elbow pads.
  • Do different sports or exercises or different days — i.e., cross-train — to avoid overuse injuries.
  • Rest! Athletes with high consecutive days of training have more injuries. A critical component of proper training, rest can actually make you stronger and prevent injuries of overuse, fatigue and poor judgment.
  • Cool down after exercise.

The best advice? Listen to your physical therapist, as well as your body. Those twinges and sharp pains are telling you to slow down. If you pay attention and rehabilitate properly, your body will thank you the next time you work out.

Thank you to our contributors:

Mitch Kaye, PT, oversees all aspects of clinical review and quality oversight for PTPN, Physiquality’s parent company. Mitch also assists PTPN regional offices with quality assurance program management through ongoing training and support, and he meets with therapists, physicians and payers as needed for program development and problem resolution.

Bernstein, Lenny. When an injury interrupts your exercise. Washington Post, January 25, 2011.

Bernstein, Lenny and Shawn Talbott. Interruptions to your exercise routine. Washington Post, January 27, 2011.

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