Exercising When You Have an Injury

Keeping Up Your Activity—Safely

Woman exercising with a broken arm
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If you regularly exercise or play a sport, you've probably overdone it and been sidelined with an injury at least once. As much as you may try to avoid getting hurt, it can happen to anyone. While it's important to give your body the chance to properly heal, with a little planning, common sense, and your doctor's OK, it's possible—and healthier!—to keep up with an exercise routine while recovering. While you'll need to protect the injured area, the rest of your body should keep moving.

Are You Injured or Just Sore?

While it's, of course, important to listen to your body, it's possible that you may think you have an injury when you're really just sore, which may affect what's safe to do in terms of exercise.

Some pain after exercise is to be expected, especially when you're first getting started. Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) comes on a day or two after a workout. When DOMS sets in, you might be worried you have an injury, but this soreness is usually your body's response to a new kind of exercise, an especially hard workout, or working out when you're not warmed up enough.

DOMS can usually be treated with anti-inflammatory medication, rest, and something to soothe your muscles, like a hot bath. Exercise usually need not be limited for safety reasons if you want to keep active, though it may be uncomfortable and rest may be just what you need to get the most out of your next workout.

That said, DOMS can also be a sign you're headed for something more serious than post-workout aches. If the pain is new, continues despite treatment, or gets worse, you could be dealing with an injury.

Basic Rules of Exercising With an Injury

When you do have a true injury, what is advisable will entirely depend on your case.

Before continuing or starting a workout plan, see your doctor to make sure your injury is promptly diagnosed and treated. Then you can work with your provider to find a routine that promotes healing but doesn't risk making the injury worse. Know, however, that some injuries may call for you to take a break from activity altogether.

Listen to Your Doctor

Your doctor's advice about exercising with an injury will depend on the location, nature, severity of the injury, as well as your overall health.

Your doctor may recommend that you swap the exercises you currently do for new ones, continue with your routine in a modified way (e.g., use lighter weights or work in more rest days), or even stop certain types of activities entirely until your condition improves.

Your doctor can help guide a resistance training program to help you stay strong while you're recovering. In addition to making recommendations about activities, he or she may refer you to a physical therapist who can suggest exercises to both heal your injury and help strengthen the rest of your body. 

Whatever your doctor or physical therapist recommends, make sure to heed the advice. Do the exercises they give you for as long as they recommend.

Modify Wisely

If you have a knee injury, for example, you may be advised to avoid cardio or lower-body strength routines. However, unless advised otherwise, you can still work on your upper body. Try switching to a sit-down workout routine. Think of it as a challenge to figure out how to exercise while seated or laying down, as this won't put pressure on the injured joint or muscle.

Likewise, if you have an upper-body injury, such as your shoulder or elbow, try concentrating on lower-body exercises while you heal.

You can also modify your routine by skipping exercises that require you to use the injured part of your body. If you've injured your arm, for example, don't use hand weights for a few days. If your lower body is hurt, swap out the treadmill or leg machines for those that focus on upper-body strength.

Again, take cues from your doctor and/or physical therapist as to what is best for your situation.

Don't Work Through the Pain

Resist the temptation to jump back into your normal routine, even if you're feeling better. Stop if you feel pain in the injured part of your body or somewhere new—even if it happens when you're doing the exercises your doctor or physical therapist recommended.

If the pain is getting worse or you develop new pain, talk to your doctor or physical therapist. If pain continues or starts while you're on a modified workout, you may be able to address it by simply moving on to a different exercise. However, in some cases, it may be best to simply stop—especially if the injury is making it difficult to use proper form.

Falling out of the correct form doesn't just make the exercise less effective, it also puts you at risk for further injury.

Give Yourself Time to Recover

Skipping a workout to let your body heal from an injury can be frustrating, but pressing on can prolong a full recovery and worsen your injury.

If your healthcare provider recommends rest, take this seriously. Rest when your body tells you it needs to.

The POLICE principle is useful for many, but not all, sports-related injuries. (Remember the RICE method? POLICE has replaced it as the recommended treatment.)

  • Protect: After an injury, protect the muscle or joint with rest and assistive devices as needed (such as crutches or a brace).
  • Optimum Loading: While still protecting the injured area, begin to move it gently after a few days of rest. Then gradually increase movement and intensity.
  • Ice: Icing can be helpful for reducing pain. Talk to your physical therapist about what's best for your particular injury.
  • Compression: Wrap the area with an elastic bandage to help reduce swelling.
  • Elevation: Use a pillow, ottoman, or block to keep the injured area elevated.

Some injuries may be supported by using a wrap, brace, or splint. It's important that any supportive device you wear fits properly. Ask your doctor, physical therapist, or trainer for recommendations.

As you return to exercise, you may need to dial back the intensity or frequency of your regular routine to give your body enough time to recover between sessions.

Prevent Future Injuries

Taking some time to assess your routine and identify why the injury occurred will help you prevent future injuries. Ask yourself these questions and make any modifications you feel are necessary; a personal trainer can help with making these calls.

  • Were you warmed up enough?
  • Did you push yourself too hard?
  • Were you lifting with poor form?
  • Could you have benefited from lift with a spotter?

Take a close look at the types of exercises you do too; you might be giving too much attention to one area of your body. Cross training is an important aspect of a well-rounded exercise routine. Make sure you're rotating through several forms of exercise that strengthen different areas.

While an injury is never desired, it can remind you of a few important lessons:

  • Maintain flexibility and balance: Tight muscles cause imbalances that can lead to injuries. For example, if your quadriceps (front of the leg) are stronger than your hamstrings (back of the leg), you're at risk for straining or evening rupturing your hamstrings.
  • Avoid overtraining: When your muscles are tired, they can't support and protect your ligaments and tendons. Weak muscles can lead to overtraining injuries. Give yourself regular rest and recovery days.
  • Strengthen your whole body: Make sure you incorporate regular weight training into your weekly routine. Strengthening all muscle groups reduces imbalances that case other muscles to overcompensate.
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