Whether an athlete or not, everyone dreads an injury. An injury can be painful, chronic or acute, and interrupt the normal flow of life. Basic things like emptying the dishwasher, preparing food, and taking the garbage out become hurdles. Actually getting back to your sport of choice or accomplishing the recommended amounts of weekly physical activity may seem impossible. About 4 months ago, my Achilles tendon ruptured playing tennis. As Injuries go, it wasn’t too painful, but I was told it would take 6-9 months before I could return to my normal activities. My life is filled with a variety of activities that are important to my health, enjoyment and sanity. What would I do? How would I be able to keep active? Many of us will experience multiple injuries or physical setbacks in our lifetime. The good news is that we can adapt and discover new ways to cope that keep us moving while we are recovering.
When deciding how to keep moving with an injury, there are a couple of things to keep in mind.
- First, don’t attempt any activity that will potentially cause more harm than good. Physical activity is almost always beneficial to long-term health, but in the short term, you need time for the injured site to heal and recover strength and range of motion. Pushing yourself is good within reason. Moving will speed the recovery and will minimize muscle atrophy. However, there is always a threshold that is too much and crossing that line can significantly set back your recovery. Listen to your own body and the healthcare professionals managing your care when they advise you on how much activity is recommended. If they tell you that you are doing too much or too little, pay attention!
- Second, there are many devices available to assist people with getting around. Be sure to select one that promotes physical activity. Motorized carts and wheelchairs are crucial in some situations, but try not to rely on them exclusively if possible. Devices that use your own power will allow you to get exercise that will benefit your muscles and heart just by getting around while you are recovering.
Ideas to keep moving:
If your injury is in your upper body, it is easier to maintain your walking and physical activity to keep your mind and body healthy during recovery. Lower limb injuries are more challenging in that regard. Below are some specific suggestions of how to keep the rest of your body strong as your lower limb injuries recover. The best strategy for you will depend on the location and severity of your injury or the type of mobility impairment. The list is not exhaustive but is meant to inspire you to be creative and to do some type of activity you enjoy!
- Knee scooters: Knee scooters are excellent for ankle and lower leg injuries. They can really zip along, get the blood pumping, and make covering flat ground a piece of cake. Although more challenging in a hilly environment, they can still be used with added caution. Be careful when the wheels get wet because the brakes become ineffective. Yikes! The scooter is superior to crutches most of the time because it takes the load off the shoulders and allows you better use of your hands for carrying things, doing the dishes, etc. Look on-line for rental opportunities since you will only need the scooter for a limited time.
- Water aerobics, water running and swimming: Water activities are great for a variety of conditions in which putting weight on the lower body is difficult including ankle and knee injuries, arthritis, stress fractures or even obesity. The buoyancy of the water will relieve the pressure on problematic joints while still providing a great cardiovascular workout. Most pools offer a combination of free swim, lap swim and water movement classes.
- Arm bicycles and arm ergometers: Whether out on the street, in the gym, or in your house using your arms to get a workout can be invigorating. Many gyms have arm ergometers and both arm bikes and ergometers can be purchased online from a variety of vendors.
- Cycle ergometers (stationary bicycles): Because of the easily adjustable workload and consistency of movement, the stationary bicycle is a good option for rehabilitation and exercise even if your injury is in the lower body. Starting slowly and progressing at a rate that does not aggravate the injury will build strength in the surrounding muscle groups to allow for a more rapid recovery. Because the stationary bike supports much of the body weight and is fully adjustable, people of most sizes and weights can use them. With injuries, you may have to get creative at first. For example, after an Achilles rupture, try cycling with one leg (with the other foot to the side on a stool occasionally doing leg extensions in the air with the injured leg) while lifting arm weights. Admittedly, it can look pretty funny, but it gets the job done and you will slow the loss of fitness during the early stages of recovery.
- Resistance exercise: Whether it is at the gym or on the couch with elastic bands, resistance training is an important way to retain your strength in your non-injured muscle groups. Once you start to regain movement at the injury site, it will also allow you to recover your strength faster in a careful and controlled way. Be sure to get instructions from your physician or physical therapist to avoid overdoing it when you first start.
- Video movement games: Consoles such as Wii Fit and Xbox 360 Kinect allow you to enjoy the fun of movement games in your living room. Although not as vigorous as doing the real thing, they are usually safer and can be modulated based on the severity of your injury. Bowling, tennis, yoga, snowboarding and Dance Dance Revolution are just a few examples of games that can get you swinging, stretching, jumping and dancing all the way to better health while injured.
Be creative and work with your physician or therapist to find activities that you can safely do with your injuries. Being active within reason will allow you to feel better, heal better and be stronger during the recovery process. You’ll be back to your normal level of activity before you know it!
Anne L. Friedlander, PhD, Vice President Programs, ConnectWell
Consulting Professor, Program in Human Biology, Stanford University