Years of playing sports, regular hiking, and traversing icy sidewalks in New York City never brought me down, but last November, thigh-high boots, a heavy microwave, and a poorly placed set of stairs did. I missed a step, my ankle wobbled unnaturally in both directions, and down I went. Miraculously, the microwave was fine. My ankle was not.
I didn't realize how much I liked working out until I couldn't do it anymore. In the eight weeks since that terrible sprain, I have become ever-increasingly stir-crazy, itching to break a sweat again. And it's been a slow start: I was so psyched to go to my first post-injury yoga class last week, only to realize, to my immense frustration, that I couldn't even fold myself into child's pose without my ankle screaming in protest.
And that's the vicious cycle: I work out to relieve stress, but I can't work out, and I'm stressed out about it. "You know your ankle could bother you for the rest of your life," my brother reminded me quite unhelpfully during the holidays. (He's in med school, and talking to him about ailments is more depressing than looking them up on WebMD.) So, is that it? I just have to accept that I'm going to be sedentary for awhile—possibly months? Years?
Not so, says Christine Bullock, fitness and lifestyle expert and creator of Evolution 20—though she can relate. "After suffering a back injury, I learned firsthand how difficult it can be to get back to feeling 100%, with the added misery of missing your regular workout routine while rehabbing," she explains. "However, injuries force us to change out workout routine and lead to what I believe is the silver lining of injury recovery: learning to master more efficient and effective training and really focus on our weaknesses (which are often the source of injury in the first place)." In other words, that sprain, tear, or break might just be a very well-disguised blessing.
So, what's the approach? See how to stay active while injured below.
"Without injury, we can fly through our regular exercises," says Bullock. "Upper or lower body injuries force us to slow down movement, correct posture, and really feel the burn. Cardio endurance may take a hit, but you can build your muscular endurance with slow isolating or eccentric movements, which also tone a lean physique." Take this opportunity to pay special attention to your form, too—it'll make your workout more effective and help prevent more injury in the future.
Speaking of basics, your core is the baseline for virtually all forms of fitness—and the good news is that it's easy to work even if you're rehabbing another body part, not to mention that focusing on your abs gives you a head start in re-injury prevention. ("Many injuries of outer extremities occur when we are not moving from our core and put all the pressure in joints like ankle, knee, or shoulder," Bullock explains.)
Try this Ab Jack move from Bullock: Lie on your back with knees bent at 90-degree angles and shins parallel to the ground with knees and ankles touching. With shoulder blades lifted into your crunch, extend legs straight out to a 60-degree angle from the floor. Pull legs apart and then back together (this should look like the bottom of a jumping jack) then return to tabletop position. Repeat 15-20 times.
If a knee, ankle, or foot injury is keeping you from your daily run, it's simple—try something other than running! Bullock likes Pilates and gyrotonics as alternatives for lower-body injuries, while those nursing arm, neck, or shoulder problems might want to try hitting the stationary bike. Carefully experiment with low-impact options until you land on a routine that works for you in the short-term. "Plus, mixing up your workouts anytime avoids plateau and will boost caloric burn," adds Bullock. A bonus!
It's ideal for rehab, since the water is forgiving on hurt muscles and joints but provides great resistance to strengthen them back up again. Don't have access to a pool? Use a resistance band ($17) to up the ante on basic exercises and stretches.
Fitness is just one part of the wellness equation, so take the extra time and resolve that you would spend working out to double down on your nutrition and mental state. "Eating an anti-inflammatory diet that's rich in vegetables and fruits will create the environment for the body to heal quickly and prevent weight gain," advises Bullock. "Meditation and increased rest will lower cortisol levels, which that can add extra weight even when you are working out in perfect physical condition."
Rest is essential to a speedy recovery, so it's really important to abide by that—even if nothing would make you happier than throwing on your sneakers and going for an easy jog. Just like you take care of yourself by consistently working out, show your body some love by honoring it with a proper recovery.
It's the toughest part of this whole process, but it's the most important. Before you even try any rehabilitory exercises, for example, wait it out until you're absolutely positive your body is up for it. From there, don't push yourself, and know that even if you're nearly at the level you were pre-injury, you'll get there eventually.
Have you ever dealt with an injury before? How did you stay active while you recovered? Tell us your pointers in the comments below!