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By: Mary Bath, PT, DPT
When can you return to exercise after an injury? What and how much should you do? Since everybody and every injury is unique, the answers aren’t one-size-fits-all. Nevertheless, there are guidelines that can apply to everyone, so keep these key points in mind.
1. Quality over quantity
Resuming an exercise routine after an injury is a great time to emphasize quality of movement and form over amount. A lot of injuries are the cause of improper exercise form or poor posture. Use a mirror for feedback on your form or seek professional guidance if you’re unsure.
Keep in mind that when you stop exercising, your muscles will change. With even just a few weeks off, muscles lose their ability to contract efficiently and effectively and the size of the muscle may decrease. Don’t expect to jump right back into what you were doing, but instead, expect to be a bit weaker. A good rule of thumb is return to 50% of what you were doing prior to your injury and increase by 10% each week. For example, if you were walking for 30 minutes daily, start with a 15-minute walk and increase to 18 minutes the next week.
2. Pay attention to your body
Before exercising an injured body part, make sure pain, swelling, and stiffness have improved.
When you do return, you should not feel pain during or after your workout. If you feel sharp pain afterward lasting for more than an hour, take that as a sign you’ve overdone it and consider taking a few days to rest. If it lingers, seek professional help.
Muscle fatigue and a burning sensation during exercise are normal. Muscle soreness up to two days after exercise, especially when returning to exercise after a hiatus, is also normal.
3. Think outside the box
If an injury has sidelined you from participating in your typical exercise routine, it is time to get creative and try something new. For most common injuries, there is a way to modify an activity or an alternative exercise you can perform. For example, wall sits tend to be less painful for knee injuries compared to squats. Let’s say you sprained your ankle or just underwent knee surgery and you can’t perform your daily walk, start a seated upper body workout or try using the arm bike at the gym. If you hurt your wrist and can’t play tennis, try hiking or a walking program.
Returning to exercise after an injury or while you’re injured is a balancing act. Returning too soon can cause re-injury, but waiting too long can lead to deconditioning and more problems. If you are unsure if you’re ready to exercise again, don’t hesitate to seek professional help. Physical therapists can evaluate you and tell you what you should and shouldn’t do while exercise physiologists can assist with exercise form and building a safe exercise routine. Click here to learn more about the different types of physical therapy treatments or to schedule an appointment.