Getting back into an exercise routine following time off can be challenging even at the best of times, and even more-so after having taken time off to recover from an injury. Additional challenges may arise if you are unsure of what to do, where to start, and how to move safely without re-injuring yourself. Although there are times when rest is necessary, the good news is that there are usually modifications that can be made in order to continue to move and to be mobile as your tissues recover from an initial injury. The key is to move safely, mindfully, and to progress gently. Knowing when and how to scale back is important, especially during the beginning (acute) stages of recovery, and once the tissues have healed, it’s important to get back into your activities step by step. Here are five tips to consider when returning to exercising after an injury.
1. If Needed, See Your Doctor or Rehabilitation Specialist
Depending on the nature of your injury, you may want to receive the OK from your doctor, sports medicine specialist, physical therapist, chiropractor, or osteopathic practitioner before returning to sport or activity. Your therapist may recommend specific restorative or rehabilitative exercises for you to follow in order to help your body to return to activity. Your practitioner should also be able to provide you with an explanation of tissue healing time.
2. Mentally Prepare and Set Goals
Think about your movement goals. What would you like to be able to do? Would you like to return to a sport or activity that you did before, or do you have new movement goals? The best type of exercise, after all, is the kind you will actually do, so it’s a good idea to plan to work towards movements that will lead you towards performing an activity or sport that you enjoy.
Learn About Pain
It may be helpful to become educated about what pain is and how to manage it. Learning about tissue healing and recovery, as well as the importance of the mind-body connection, can also be very helpful. For example, did you know that fear of movement can actually increase pain? If this is a concern of yours, reach out to a therapist who has a good understanding of pain science to help you.
Focus on positives
Most injuries are temporary, but it may feel like there is a lot of catching up to do following an injury. Remind yourself that you will be able to return to doing the activities you enjoy, it’s just going to take some time to build up your tolerance to exercise, so be gentle with yourself.
3. Make a Plan
Think about where you would like to exercise: at home, at the gym, or outdoors? Is there a specific activity or sport that you would like to do? Or are your goals to get back to functional activities or hobbies, such as gardening, or cleaning the house? Having a specific goal in mind is helpful to give you some direction with the exercises you will be performing.
Keep track of your goals in a diary. This will help you to monitor progress and gains. It is important to measure your activities so that you can learn where you are at now, and how to progress step by step. Activity levels and exercises can be tracked in a number of ways. For example, if you would like to get back into running, you could begin by walking and measure the distance and time. It may also be useful to make notes of other factors such as incline, terrain (treadmill, concrete, grass, or trail for example). You can also write about how you felt during the walk. Once you are ready, you can progress to walking and running intervals and gradually increase the running time to progress to a full run.
4. Listen to Your Body
A little discomfort is OK. Often, our nervous system gets more protective following an injury, and if you think of pain as an alarm system, your alarm might be more sensitive to any input that is perceived as a threat (even though everything is OK). Feeling a little bit of discomfort and even low grade pain does not necessarily mean that you have re-injured yourself. As your body adapts to increased levels of movement and activity, your alarm system should start to calm down.
Excessive pain is not the goal either, we don’t want to push beyond what your body is ready for, which could end up in a flare up. As you get to know what types and levels of activity you can tolerate, hover just around your threshold, and over time, you will gradually be able to do more, with less pain.
5. Vary Your Movements
Variety is the spice of life, and varying your movements will not only prevent your routine from becoming boring, it’s also really great for your body. Think of it this way, moving in a few repetitive ways by performing only a few activities will result in you becoming better at those movements, but also limits you to those select patterns of movements. Moving in the same repetitive ways while missing out on other ranges of motions can be likened to eating the same foods every day. The more you vary your movements, the more “movement nutrients” you take in, resulting in a well-balanced movement diet.
Still unsure? Contact us to learn more about returning to activity following an injury.
Written by: Anne-Marie Mougeot, B.Sc. Kin., D.O.M.P.