Health / Expert Advice

When Can Exercise Actually Help Heal an Injury?

Light movement can be beneficial, as long as you stay safe and are careful not to make it worse.

Any athlete or exercise-enthusiast knows firsthand how frustrating an injury can be. It can be a major setback on the way to your goals, whether you’re trying to lose weight or get a personal best time in a half marathon. While you heal your injury, you are usually told to rest, ice, compress, and elevate (RICE). You’re told not do much else in terms of movement. But, Ariel Osharenko, physical therapist at On Point Physical Therapy in New York City, says that there is growing evidence that cross training with light movements, such as walking, swimming, and stretching, may help you recover from an injury. In fact, it may help you come back sooner than if you stayed sedentary.

Here’s a look at how light movement may help heal your injury and how to tell if it’s safe for you to try.

To Move Or Not To Move?

Depending on the extent of your injury there might be no need to stay in bed. (If you are in a lot of pain, or are recovering from surgery, this doesn’t apply.) Instead, you might be able to cross train and stretch until you’re recovered enough to return to your training.

“In the past, sports professionals used to recommend the standard RICE treatment for all injuries,” Osharenko says. “Nowadays, especially in the last two decades, evidence shows otherwise. Movement, especially gentle movement at the beginning of an injury, is the way to go. It will allow a decreased buildup of scar tissue within a joint (if it’s a joint-related injury) or within the muscle/tendon (if it’s musculotendon-related injury.)”

Osharenko says that gentle movements like walking will likely be okay if you are experiencing a muscle strain or tendon-related injury, such as Achilles tendonitis. On the other hand, he says that returning too quickly to movement, after a serious stress fracture, for example, can aggravate it more and lead to further damage. And, if you have a hamstring strain, you shouldn’t stretch for several weeks after the injury, or you could make things worse.

Injuries often require an expert diagnosis to determine what treatment is best. “For example, overuse injuries, such as tennis elbow and iliotibial (ITB) friction syndrome, should be monitored closely in relation to the time and intensity spent training. Any additional stress could worsen symptoms and result in additional injuries,” Osharenko says.

Always check with your doctor or physical therapist to confirm that it’s safe. Also, of course, stop if you are in a lot of pain.

Benefits of Cross-Training Through an Injury

One of the main benefits of cross training through an injury is a chance to reduce your symptoms. You can do this without any of the side effects of painkillers. “There is substantial high-quality evidence showing [that] exercise therapy should be [the] first-line of treatment for musculoskeletal injuries,” notes Damien Howell, physical therapist, DPT, OCS, in Richmond, Virginia.  “Unlike other interventions, such as medication or surgery, exercise therapy isn’t associated with risk of serious harm.”

He points to a study where participants with acute low back pain walked on a treadmill at a self-selected speed. Those who walked for just ten minutes at a moderate pace reduced their pain levels. (Walking at a faster speed or for a longer period of time didn’t make much of a difference in terms of further reducing pain.)

Osharenko adds that other benefits of cross training may include:

Staying Safe While You Heal

Howell stresses that it’s important to work with a professional to develop a plan to recover and heal so that you can return to your regular fitness routine. “A physical therapist can assist in structuring exercise therapy addressing the symptoms, impairments, and dysfunction associated with musculoskeletal pain,” he says.

Osharenko adds that working with a physical therapist, in addition to doing light exercise, can offer further treatments. This will help you heal faster than if you try to do it on your own. “In physical therapy, neuromuscular electrical stimulation (NMES) and blood flow restriction training (BFR) are proven methods that people can use along with very light intensity exercise to allow for better outcomes and prevent complications,” he says.

And remember, you may get the green light from your doctor to go ahead with some light exercise. However, it’s still important to take it easy if you are injured. “Making sure [that] you don’t progress with cross training too fast is essential,” Osharenko says. “Starting with very short bouts of training with more rest periods is a great way to do this. Later, increasing the training time with less resting time will allow you to safely progress.”

Your physical therapist can recommend a specific protocol to follow to get you back to your regular fitness routine. Following their instructions carefully is especially important for athletes returning to their sport after an injury, he adds.

Injuries can feel derailing. Keep strong and stay patient on your road to recovery. You’ll be back at it before you know it.

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