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Can I Still Work Out While Recovering From An Illness or Injury?

Sep 27 2020
4 min read
Close-up on man receiving assistance from a physical therapist as he curls a 1 pound orange dumbbell.

Q: I never like to derail my fitness routine, even when I’m sick or injured. Is it OK to work out while I’m recovering?

A: The line between taking it too easy after an illness or injury, and rushing your recovery, is a fine one. But as long as you’re careful about your training, there is almost always something you can do to stay active. Some type of movement may actually be recommended for you, since being too sedentary after you’ve gotten sick or hurt can often do more harm than good. Too much time in bed or on the couch will lead to lost muscle mass and strength, and it can decrease bone calcium and increase the risk of blood clots.

Talk to your doctor about what you can and cannot do as you heal, and ask specific questions. For example, if he says you should rest for two weeks, ask what that means, exactly. Can you go for a slow walk around the block (or farther)? Use an exercise bike? Do light resistance training? Swim? Find out if gentle, low-impact exercise is OK and ask about how you can increase what you’re doing over time — and the signs that indicate when you should stop.

See, too, if there are ways to modify your regular workout. For example, if your arm was injured, you may be able to immobilize or elevate it, if needed, while exercising on an elliptical trainer to keep up your cardiovascular fitness. Or switch your cardio routine altogether by doing water aerobics instead of jogging, if your doctor gives you the go-ahead. Anything that gets your heart rate up, no matter how small, will do your body good and help the healing process.

If you’re in physical therapy your therapist may teach you how to do repetitive isometric contractions (moves in which your muscles don’t shorten, as is the case when you’re holding a weight overhead or in some yoga poses, for instance) around the afflicted area instead of stretches that involve joint movement. You can also focus on strengthening other areas while you heal. For example, if you injured your leg, you may still be able to train your arms, shoulders, and back.
Here are more tips on resuming exercise after an injury or illness:

Listen to Your Body

If anything you’re doing causes pain, stop. Pushing yourself too hard could make your condition worse — or even put you back to square one. Tendonitis in your foot, for example, could turn into a stress fracture if you’re not careful, causing you to sit out even longer. The same goes for swelling – stop exercising if it increases, and use its presence as a guide; it will help you determine how quickly you can increase the time and intensity of any moves that put pressure on or otherwise stress your injury.

Let Your Neck be Your Guide When You're Sick

If you’re ill, use the so-called “neck rule” to gauge whether it’s safe to exercise: Symptoms below the neck (chest cold, bronchial infection, body ache, stomachache, nausea) require time off, while symptoms above the neck (runny nose, stuffiness, sneezing) are unlikely to pose a risk. Take extra caution with any respiratory condition that’s worse than a cold; it can escalate into a more serious condition like a sinus infection or pneumonia.

Ease Back Into Your Routine

Getting back to where you were before you got hurt or sick is simply going to take time. Increase the intensity and/or duration of your routine by about 5 percent more effort per week. More than anything else, stay as active as you’re able while not overdoing it.