If you’re used to being physically active, you know how disheartening it can be to get injured, and then have to wait to get back into your normal routine again. But despite your initial frustration, learning to be patient with yourself during the healing process can actually help you avoid future injury – and is a great way to learn how to exercise safely all the time, and be more in tune with your body’s needs.
Though many of the tips on returning to exercise after injury may seem self-explanatory at first, they can be eye-opening at the time. In addition, the same tips can be applied if you weren’t injured, but you’re getting back into the gym after a long break (or returning to your normal activity schedule).
Before we go into the tips we have for you on how to get back into physical activity after a break period, remember that you should always check with your doctor after any injury. Though these are tips that you can use for safe exercise at any point, you should always develop a personalized plan with your doctor as well.
You absolutely need to give your body the proper time to heal itself after injury – and make sure that when you do get back into the groove, you do it correctly. Here is how we recommend you do that…
Perform a Proper Warm Up
Whether you’re injured, getting back into working out after some time off, or just going through the motions of your normal exercise routine, warm-ups are non-negotiable! And that means you need to stretch your muscles for at least 5 minutes before you even start any physical activity.
In addition, make sure you’re well-rested and well-hydrated – as your body isn’t going to respond well to any type of exercise if it isn’t well-equipped. And finally, after you stretch, you have to ease into your regular exercise routine, not start it abruptly. If you typically run, then walk first, until your body is warmed up and ready to go. The worst thing you can do is jump right in without any preparation – injured or not.
Start Small and Build Up
One of the biggest mistakes that people make when returning to exercise after injury is that they immediately want to jump right in where they left off, but they absolutely cannot. In fact, you should start with a fraction of what you used to do, and work your way up. Though this may seem time-consuming and tedious, it will be well worth it.
For instance, if you typically run four miles, start with one mile, and jog instead of run. Wait to see how your body responds to that workout, and if there are no problems, then run one mile the next day. Next, increase the mile amount to two, and then three, until you’re finally back to the full four.
Have Realistic Goals
If you want to get stronger, increase your endurance, or burn more calories per workout, you have to put realistic plans in place for how to get there – and this includes injury-avoidance.
For instance, if you currently bike for 45 minutes a day, but you want to get up to one hour a day, you shouldn’t just wake up one morning and automatically add fifteen minutes onto your routine. Instead, a better plan is to give yourself 3 days to get to your new goal time – increasing your workout by 5 minutes each day.
In addition, the same rule applies when you’re doing strength-training. If you currently lift 20 lbs. and want to get stronger, do so a little at a time. You should do this by increasing the amount of weight you lift by 5 lbs. to start – but lowering the number of reps. Gradually increase the number of reps with the new weight until you get back to your starting rep amount. Only then should you increase the weight by another 5 lbs. and start the process all over again.
Pain Means Stop
Especially after taking a break from exercise, you obviously have to be extra careful not to re-injure yourself. In addition, you also have to make sure you’re completely healed. Therefore, if you have any type of pain during physical activity, it’s a red flag that you just aren’t ready to proceed. Just “pushing through” your workout may be okay when your body is healthy, but the rules are much different while you’re healing – and that approach certainly won’t work in your favor.
Instead, check with your doctor to determine next steps. They may want you to take a pain reliever to reduce inflammation, or use hot or cold presses on the previously injured site. Most likely they will tell you to do very light activity or go back to resting until you no longer have discomfort.
Stretching is Key
Warm-ups and cool-downs are both essential to a healthy workout, and should both include stretching for the best results – but that isn’t the only time you should stretch. Depending on the extent of your injury, your doctor or physical therapist will likely give you specific exercises to do to speed up the healing process.
You should think of these exercises as separate from your normal workout and aim to do them at least 3 times a day: in the morning, as part of your workout warm-up or cool-down and at night before bed. Doing so will help speed up healing but also help ensure you don’t get the same injury again. For instance, sprained ankle exercises can help further strengthen the muscles in that area, to keep them strong when you go back to full-blown running after injury.
In addition, certain stretching “tools”, like a foam roller, can help you really work the muscles in multiple areas of your body. In place of going to an actual massage therapist, a foam roller can provide a deep-tissue massage to the area around the injury, and is so easy to use from the comfort of your own home.
Get Some Accountability
After you set your realistic goals of how you want to get back into exercise after injury, you should pick an accountability partner to help you stick with them. This person should check on you to make sure you’re being true to the guidelines that will best help you heal – and also being good to yourself in the process.
For instance, if your healing plan includes getting back into physical activity 4 days a week when you normally work out for 5 days, your accountability partner can check in on your extra rest day to make sure you’re sticking to the plan.
In addition, that person can also motivate you when you feel like the finish line is so far away. It can be incredibly frustrating to take it slow when it comes to getting back into physical activity after healing, especially if you’ve gained weight during your time off. But having someone who can lift you up and encourage you while you’re in transition can make all the difference.
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