How To Maintain Your Shape (And Sanity) While Recovering From An Injury

Laid low by an injury? Stay fit and fabulous while you recover with these tried and true tips.

November 1, 2017
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Like many women, I use habitual exercise not only as a way to stay fit and bolster my health but also as a way to keep myself from going all-out nuts. The endorphin boost, the release of anxious or angry energy, and even just the time to get out of my head and into my body are all among the reasons that exercise is way at the top of my self-care regimen.

So what happens when an unexpected injury sends you to the sidelines? You lose that all-important outlet and need to develop some new strategies to maintain your physical and emotional health.

About six years ago I developed a chronic overuse injury in my right leg (the generic term is runner’s knee) that made running, walking, and sometimes even just standing super painful. That should’ve been an indication for me to stop, right?

Well, I was stubborn, and I made that classic amateur mistake of confusing pain for the discomfort we’ve been told is part of athleticism.

I had become so reliant on long-distance, steady-state cardio for controlling my weight and keeping my anxiety in check that I just couldn’t follow doctor’s orders of staying off it long enough for it to fully heal. I kept returning too soon, re-injuring myself repeatedly for more than a year—a cycle that was vicious enough to eventually land me crying and limping into an orthopedic surgeon’s office.

What could I have done differently to help myself stay sane and healthy while I needed a rest? Oh so many things.

Get your wiggles and your crazies out.

This is what I tell my toddler when she’s acting up or showing destructive behavior. I make her jump around waving her arms and legs for as long as she can before flopping over. And this is basically what I’m doing for myself when I make sure I get my workouts in.

Did you know you can become addicted to exercise, which means you might suffer withdrawal symptoms without it? Exercise has long been known to benefit a restless or depressed mind, and when you can’t get it because of injury, illness, or whatever reason, you may suffer if you don’t re-calibrate your mental health self-care to account for the missing piece.

For example, my surgeon, who happened to also be a cancer-surviving, award-winning triathlete, told me that the only way he kept his sanity when a punishing cancer treatment schedule sidelined him from triathlon training was fanatically doing crossword puzzles during his time in the hospital.

Whatever it is—meditating, getting massages, or even just obsessing over a new murder mystery series—finding other ways to stay focused, giving yourself an endorphin boost, or mitigating an unsettled mind can be key to staying sane while on a layoff from exercise.

The 411 on Active Rest

Just because you have an injury, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be completely confined to the couch.

Let me stress that you should follow doctor’s orders here, but depending on the severity and location of your injury, there may be some forms of exercise that are still available to you while you recover. Working out while working around a specific body part or group of muscles is part of the concept of cross-training, which can keep you going strong and injury free when done correctly.

For example, many common fitness injuries have to do with overuse of one muscle group or repeated pounding damage to one joint. If you find a form of activity that doesn’t exacerbate your injury (a professional trainer or physical therapist can help you with this), you’re golden.

So if you injured your knee from repetitive high impact to the joint (like I did), you might be able to cross-train by switching to cycling, swimming, aqua-jogging, or even hand-cycling if your gym has that machine. In fact, adding biking and swimming to my routine is how I made the evolution from runner and yogi to include hobby triathlete. So, silver lining? Yep.

Keeping It Tight in the Kitchen

Have you heard the phrase “you can’t outrun a bad diet”? If you’re sidelined from working out while you’re on a weight loss journey—or even just on a lifelong mission to maintain a healthy body—losing the metabolism-boosting and calorie-burning effects of exercise can feel devastating.

Still, remembering that you have control over the food you eat can put things back in perspective. If you’re burning fewer calories throughout the day because you’re resting more and exercising less (or not at all), then you can adjust your calorie intake to make sure you won’t gain weight during your recovery. And if weight and body composition is your main concern while injured, you will feel buoyed to know the results of several studies say that diet is overall more important to sustained weight loss than exercise output. The takeaway? Adjust your food intake to fit with your altered physical output and stay on track.

Getting Back out There on the Quick

No matter how much encouragement and well-meaning advice you get while you’re recovering from an injury, the fact remains that you just want to heal and get back to your grind, right?

In addition to your efforts to stay fit and positive while you allow yourself the time to heal, remember to make use of those tried and true quick recovery methods: RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation), eating nutritious meals, and even alternative recovery methods like getting massages and acupuncture have been shown to help. In the end, follow the advice from your doctor, stay focused, and know you’ll be back on top of your game soon.