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5 Tips for Returning to Exercise After an Injury

Woman doing pilates with instructor

An injury happens in an instance, but recovery takes time.

You may have fallen hard or over-exerted yourself and ended with a stress injury. Or perhaps you took a spill skiing and broke your leg. Or a collision left you with a concussion. It only takes a second or two to damage your body in an accident. Unfortunately, returning to exercise after injury can and should take a lot longer. Follow these five steps to safely get back to your fitness routine and return to the same activity level, pre-injury.

#1: Consult with your healthcare provider and make a game plan

First, get the okay from your doctor that you can gradually start exercising again. Then, while a physical therapist can show you exercises that will help relieve any remaining pain or tension, they can also help you make a plan, recommend exercises based on your injuries and ensure you don’t over-exert or put strain on any muscles that might cause serious pain. 

You may also want to schedule regular sessions with a registered massage therapist (RMT), who can help accelerate the healing of damaged tissues and decrease any underlying tension that limits your activity. While some patients may seek treatment from acupuncturists, who can promote circulation to better speed up healing and minimize pain.

Likely your providers will tell you to moderate the amount and intensity of exercise, advising you not to go full steam ahead even if you’re itching to get back into your old routine.

All of your practitioners can access your imaging studies using PocketHealth, so they can see the full picture of what your body initially went through and any follow-up studies showing recovery progress. These can inform what to include in your game plan for working out with an injury. Listen to what your clinicians say about when to start back and how to build up activity frequency and intensity. They will also consider your current status including any swelling, stiffness or pain.  

#2: Start slowly

Consider this equation: double the time you’ve been off your feet or out of commission. That’s how long your returning to exercise after injury should take. Starting at full speed won’t make you recover faster—it can actually slow things down. It’s not just the injured area that’s been affected, it’s other muscles as well. You’re most likely deconditioned, losing some coordination, flexibility and strength in other body parts as well, as your body took a break during the recovery. By ramping up too quickly, you can reinjure the initial area and also injure other parts by overcompensating.

Whether you’re lifting weights, running, cycling or playing team sports, your doctor will probably advise you to decrease your initial efforts perhaps by 50% of normal. Then increase your exercise efforts as you go, maybe 10% weekly if you’re doing well. 

Runners might start by walking, and hockey players might start by skating on their own, avoiding games. Weight lifting might start with bands or light weights instead of heavy bench pressing. 

#3: Try something new

Since your body has to adjust to movement again, ask your doctor about different sports or exercises to improve your recovery. That can mean cross-training, which exercises different parts of your body in circuits. It can help you to rebuild strength while not focusing on the sport or activity causing the injury.

Low-impact activities are good exercises for injuries. Swimming is an all-body workout, providing cardio benefits while being easy on the joints. Yoga and pilates are low-impact as well. Mix up your routine to give your body time to rest in between your workouts, swimming one day and walking the next day. If you do some leg strength training on Monday, focus on the arms on Tuesday, allowing you to safely target various muscle groups.  

#4: Balance and stretching

Stretching and balancing exercises are good when returning to exercise after injury. Warm up before you begin and cool down at the end. Ask your doctor or physical therapist which stretches to do and for how long. Get advice on the best warmup exercises for injuries, so your body can be ready for more intense exercise and blood flow to those muscles. Balance exercises can also be helpful as you recover since your body has probably lost some muscle and conditioning. It can help strengthen your core muscles while also improving your posture.  

#5: Don’t push through the pain

If you’re a regular athlete, you might feel that when returning to exercise after injury, it is best to ignore or push through the pain. This isn’t smart, as ignoring your pain is a great way to hurt yourself again. Ask your doctor or physical therapist what kind of pain or discomfort is acceptable as you exercise and what should prompt you to stop or back off. Stopping the painful exercise should make your body feel better, so if it lasts a long time or is severe, you may need to take it easy for a few days and not come back as aggressively. That painful feeling is a sign from your body that you overdid it. 

#6 Share your records to track progress

As you continue working out after injury, follow up with your clinicians and share any new imaging studies with them, so everyone is on the same page. PocketHealth has functionality that enables patients to easily and securely share imaging with doctors, physical therapists, acupuncturists, chiropractors and other healthcare providers.

Sharing imaging reports with these professionals makes them better care partners –  giving them all the information they need to help you make a full and safe recovery. A chiropractor can use scans to determine sources of pain and inflammation and your physical therapist can use it as a roadmap to understanding which muscles should or should not be exercised.

When you and your care team have access to your radiology records, everyone can stay on top of your health and keep you on a successful path to recovery.

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