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Safe Ways To Stay Active When You Have An Exercise Injury 

Whether you’re a hardcore gymgoer or just starting to find your fitness groove, it’s frustrating to suddenly be sidelined by an injury—especially one caused by your workouts. It’s a common issue, though, with more than half of physically active people surveyed for a study published in Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports reporting that they had, at some point, sustained an exercise-related injury.

The good news: If you’re recovering from an exercise injury, you don’t necessarily have to bide your time on the couch. In many cases, exercise (albeit modified) may be just the ticket to getting back to your normal routine faster. Here, fitness pros share their best tips for how to stay active through an exercise injury.

Two Categories of Exercise Injuries

There are two main types of exercise injuries: traumatic and overuse. “Traumatic injuries can be caused from physical contact, like a hockey check that leads to bruising some ribs, or from a sudden force, like trying to make a quick cut that results in tearing your ACL (the ligament that runs across your knee),” explains Alex Tauberg, D.C., C.S.C.S., Pittsburgh-based chiropractor and certified strength and conditioning specialist. “Overuse injuries, on the other hand, occur when repetitive motions eventually lead to an injury. One example is tendonitis, which is essentially inflammation of a certain tendon.”

While it might seem like the most effective way to heal from an exercise injury is to take a break from your workout routine and lay low, the opposite is actually true. Sedentary living when injured can actually be counterintuitive—and may even delay your return to your old exercise routine. “Movement increases blood flow, stimulates the repair and remodeling of affected tissues, and is beneficial for the nervous system,” explains Jordan Duncan, D.C., a chiropractor at Silverdale Sport & Spine. “Movement also stimulates the body’s tremendous capacity to adapt and heal, and graded exposure to activity allows those who have been injured to get back to normal function.”

Read More: What Is Overtraining Syndrome?

What’s more: Being sedentary while recovering from an exercise injury can cause muscles and joints used to consistent challenges to atrophy and become stiff and dysfunctional, according to Tauberg. “This then makes it more difficult when an injured person starts to become more active again,” he adds.

How to Keep Moving With an Upper-Body Injury

Now for your marching orders. Here are a few of the ways you can stay active while recovering from an upper-body injury. Check in with a health and fitness professional, like a physical therapist, chiropractor, or certified trainer, to tailor any movement to your unique injury and needs.

1. Train your lower body with weights

First, you can continue to make those leg gains with lower-body resistance training, perhaps just with a few modifications. Bill Daniels, C.S.C.S., C.P.T., founder of Beyond Fitness, recommends lower-body weight-training activities that don’t strain or place pressure on your upper body, such as dumbbell squats and lateral and forward lunges. “Holding dumbbells allows you more freedom to keep your arms in positions that don’t aggravate your injury,” he says. Obviously, you want to avoid holding weights in any position that causes discomfort, so steering clear of barbells is generally a good idea.

2. Train your uninjured arm 

If you’ve injured your left arm, for example, you can—and should—still work on your right arm, according to Daniels. “Many people think this will lead to muscle imbalance, but that’s not entirely true,” he says. In fact, research has shown that strengthening one arm can actually help bolster strength and reduce loss of muscle in the other—even if it’s not moving at all. The reason for this? “Basically, your brain doesn’t want your body to become so imbalanced that one side becomes so dominant that the other becomes useless,” Daniels explains. So, when you work your left arm, it still activates pathways related to the muscles in your right, for example.

3. Do yoga

This ancient practice involves myriad different poses that can be helpful for those with upper-body injuries—especially in the later stages of healing, according to Conrad. The key is to focus on lower-body poses that don’t involve bearing weight on the arms, such as lunges, tree poses, warriors I and II, and half-seated twists. If you’re taking a group yoga class, make sure to let your instructor know about your injury so they can offer appropriate modifications for you throughout the class.

How To Keep Moving With A Lower-Body Injury

Lower-body injuries can be tricky because we tend to be on our feet a lot while we exercise. However, it is possible to find activities that focus more on your upper body and give your lower half a break. (Again, since every injury is different, check in with a pro before you get moving.)

1. Try isometric exercises

When you have a lower-body injury, it can be painful to move the injured muscle or joint. However, Daniels points out that you may be able to do isometric exercises. “For example, you may have a knee that hurts when you squat or lunge, but if you go into a wall sit and hold that for 30 seconds, you may not experience any pain,” he says. “This is a great way to continue to strengthen the muscles around the injured area, which ultimately will lead to less pain.” 

2. Walk in a pool

Walking might cause discomfort if you’re recovering from a lower-body exercise injury—but pool walking is a great alternative. “Walking in the pool takes the weight off the lower body injury so that it won’t hurt as much during recovery-phase exercise,” says Conrad. He recommends starting in an area of the pool where the water comes up to your waist and swinging your arms as if you are walking at a fast past on land. This helps encourage your forward motion. “Try to focus on your ab muscles so that you’re placing the least amount of pressure on your legs and let the resistance of the water help strengthen and tone your legs without causing you pain,” he adds.

3. Hop on a stationary bike

Stationary bike riding can be a good low-impact method for lower-body injury exercise recovery, since it’s non-weight bearing, keeps the muscles moving, and can be done in the comfort of your home with a stationary bike, explains Conrad. “For those in a lot of pain when walking and climbing steps, a stationary bike is a good beginning exercise that you can progress from as you improve.” 

4. Do upper-body resistance training

There are a plethora of upper-body resistance exercises you can do while recovering from a lower-body injury. All sorts of seated upper-body moves, from pec flies and chest presses to seated military presses and overhead triceps extensions, can work, according to Conrad. Just avoid standing moves, which put some burden on your lower body.

5. Work your non-injured leg

Of course, many lower-body exercises are off-limits when you’ve got an injury in the bottom half of your body, but there are a few ways you can continue to build strength and muscle in your non-injured leg, Conrad says. Try unilateral machine work (think single-leg extensions, curls, and presses) or even working on your single-leg squat, if you’re up for the challenge. (You can always try that one in the pool at first!) 

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