If you’re a dedicated exerciser, you’ve probably experienced an injury at some point. Whether it’s caused by pushing yourself too hard during a workout or by an unfortunate accident outside of the gym, it’s not enjoyable to have to give up something that brings you so much joy.
Many individuals don’t realize that dealing with an injury is just as much a mental challenge as it is a physical one. Whether you have to take a few days or a couple of months off from your regular routine, it’s crucial to prioritize both aspects during your recovery. That’s why being injured is even worse than you might think.
“When individuals get injured and can no longer perform or excel in their sport, they lose a small part of their identity,” says Lauren Lou D.P.T., C.S.C.S., a physical therapist. This is why rehabilitation for athletes or fitness enthusiasts is so complex. It’s important to recognize that the mental and social components are equally important as the physical ones when it comes to successfully rehabilitating an injury.
While the physical aspects of taking time off can be challenging, the emotional aspect of feeling sidelined is the biggest hurdle, according to Frank Benedetto, P.T., C.S.C.S., a board-certified physical therapist specializing in sports and orthopedics. “Most media coverage emphasizes the physical benefits of regular exercise, but we also experience significant emotional benefits.”
The mental health advantages of exercise include reduced stress, increased confidence, and even enhanced creativity. And while it takes about two to four weeks to experience a decline in strength and conditioning, the mental impact of removing exercise from your routine is felt almost immediately.
Having a plan in place for when you need to take time off can greatly ease the situation. Here are the recommendations from rehabilitation professionals on how to take care of your mental and physical well-being when dealing with an injury.
How to Exercise When You’re Injured
If you’re unable to participate for a day or two…
The mental: Make the most of your time off.
Missing a workout or two is disappointing, but it’s important to remind yourself that it’s not the end of the world, according to Bonnie Marks, Psy.D., a senior psychologist at NYU Langone Health. One of the most effective tools you can use, she suggests, is positive self-talk. Telling yourself things like “It’s temporary, I can handle it” or “I’m still resilient” can go a long way in putting things into perspective.
In addition to that, try to utilize this time productively by planning your next training session, seeking advice from others who have experienced similar injuries, or connecting with a physical therapist or trainer to learn about injury prevention strategies.
To replace the mental release you typically get from your workouts, consider using relaxation techniques like meditation and progressive muscle relaxation, recommends Marks.
The physical: View it as a time for recovery.
Fortunately, taking a day or two off from exercising is not a significant setback, even if it wasn’t planned.
I believe it is vital to consider a couple of days away from work as essential for the rehabilitation of a minor injury – not just to avoid a more significant injury that could lead to even more time off – but also as the recuperation that is crucial for optimum performance,” states Lou.
The mental: Maintain a positive mindset, seek assistance, and take proactive steps.
When you find yourself sidelined from your regular workout routine for a month or two, or even longer, it can be mentally challenging. Both athletes and workout enthusiasts may struggle with the absence of physical activity during this prolonged period. However, it’s important to adopt a positive outlook and make the most of the situation. Use this time as an opportunity to engage in cross-training or focus on specific strengths or skills that often get neglected during regular training.
For instance, if you usually engage in weightlifting but have injured your wrist, utilize this time to partake in cardio workouts that you wouldn’t ordinarily have time for. Similarly, as a runner with a sprained ankle, utilize the time to improve your upper body strength and core strength at the gym. Regardless of your chosen activities, it’s crucial to establish specific and attainable goals to maintain focus and motivation throughout this period, advises Lou.
The physical: Address the underlying issue.
When faced with the need to take an extended break of more than a few days due to a non-acute injury, it’s essential to understand that your body is signaling a message. According to Krystina Czaja, D.P.T., a physical therapist at Westchester Medical Center, the flagship facility of the Westchester Medical Center Health Network, the most crucial aspect is recognizing that strength cannot be built upon an injury without allowing for adequate healing time.
Czaja emphasizes the importance of never disregarding pain, as it serves as your body’s way of warning you about potential injury risks. Unless you have experienced a traumatic injury such as a fracture or wound, persistent pain that hinders your ability to exercise typically indicates that your body has been compensating for weaknesses. Instead of solely focusing on the pain, it is imperative to address the underlying cause.
According to Czaja, effective strategies for doing so may involve utilizing self-myofascial release techniques through foam rolling, employing a lacrosse or tennis ball on tender areas, and engaging in gentle exercises that avoid placing strain on the injured area. If you are unsure about the appropriate course of action, consulting with a physical therapist is strongly recommended.
Important time off can be mentally and emotionally distressing,” states Marks. Four vital things to keep in mind:
“Engaging in activity, even simply by performing physical therapy exercises or preparing a nutritious meal, can diminish feelings of powerlessness and low self-esteem while concurrently contributing to physical recovery,” she adds. (Experts also suggest incorporating foods that reduce inflammation into your healthy meals when you’re healing from an injury.
The physical: Request an alternative.
If you’re going to be unable to work for a significant period of time, a proficient physical therapist will offer you substitute exercises and alternatives to your usual workout routine, says Benedetto.
Unless you have an injury that affects your entire body, there is almost always something else you can do to stay active. “Walking, swimming, and yoga are excellent general choices but nearly any exercise can be adapted to alleviate pain with the correct approach,” he adds. With the guidance of a professional, you can strive to maintain strength and conditioning, so that you’re prepared to resume activity when the time comes. (You should also focus on improving your mobility to prevent future injuries.)
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