Whether you’re dealing with a minor injury or one that requires surgery, a fast recovery is probably your priority. And, if you’ve been working out for a while, the activity withdrawal is real—and probably causing a lot of anxiety. Here’s some good news: with thoughtful planning, you can get in a great cardio workout, even when you’re dealing with an injury.
What type and how much exercise you can do is going to depend on your injury. “The fact is that recovery depends heavily on many different factors including the severity of injury, the location of the injury, the level of fitness someone had before the injury, and of course the attitude of the individual,” says former US Air Force military fitness program manager and professor at the College of Health Sciences at Trident University Maria Luque, PhD, M.S., CHES, ACE-CPT.
Dr. Luque suggested frequent, low impact exercise sessions doing activities such as walking or swimming, or cycling to keep up your fitness level while you’re recovering. Again, what you can do depends on the where and how badly you’re injured. Those low impact exercises are going to get you moving, without beating up your body. As tempting as it can be to rush through the recovery process, patience is your best bet. Let your body heal completely before you push yourself.
Especially for those more severe injuries, you’re going to want to get some professional guidance. “Even if money is an issue, spending a few sessions with a quality trainer can really make a huge difference because they can create a program that works for YOU and will continue working for you even if you can’t afford going to trainers long-term,” says Dr. Luque. Most doctors will direct you to a physical trainer as the first step in recovery. Keep in mind, the first trainer you try might not be a good fit. If you don’t feel like it will be a successful partnership, try someone new.
Effective Exercise Options While You Recover
Maintaining your cardio fitness while nursing an injury can get a little tricky, but it’s not impossible. Here are some exercises you can try, depending on your injury:
Weight Lifting and/or Kettle Bells
What? Weights? I know you’re thinking this is supposed to about cardio, and it is. Promise. Lifting weights is a two-for: you can get in a cardiovascular workout and get stronger at the same time. If you’re practicing proper technique you should be able to burn some calories while keeping things relatively low impact. Obviously if you’ve got a back injury, kettlebells may not be the way to go. Again it depends on your limitations.
“It is possible to put together a short circuit with high repetitions, low weight, and short rest periods for a more cardiovascular result,” says Dr. Luque. “The great thing is that it can be adapted to the type of injury. If there is an upper body injury, a lower body circuit would work and vice versa.”
If you’ve never spent time in the weight room, you’re probably going to feel a little out-of-place at first—especially when you’re hurt and maybe gimping around. Don’t let it stop you! You’re going to be surprised at the strength you’ll find. Lifting weights is great for the heart, muscles, and mind.
An ergo meter is the machine where you spin your arms around and around in circles. Like a pulpy green juice, it looks weird, but it’s great for you. “[This is an] excellent choice especially for people with immobilized legs or leg injuries that prevent them from doing longer workouts like walking or biking on their feet,” says Dr. Luque. The only downside to ergo meters is that they’re hard to find.
While it’s a standard piece of equipment in most physical therapy offices, most gyms don’t have one. If you are looking at a lengthy recovery time for a serious lower body injury, calling around to find a gym with an ergo meter might be a good idea.
Similar to kettle bells or weight lifting, resistance bands work both your cardio and muscle fitness. This is probably the cheapest and easiest workout option (recovery or not). You don’t even have to go to a gym.
Swimming is a difficult yet low impact workout. Most likely, if you swim consistently throughout recovery, your cardio fitness level will be better than when you first started. Swimming requires a whole body effort, making it a good challenge for those of you that usually run or bike.
If you can’t stand swimming, you can try running in water or water weights.
Cycling is great for overcoming irritating injuries. It’s low impact and easy to tailor to your fitness level. “Things to consider would be the choice between a recumbent and upright bike depending on the injury,” says Dr. Luque. “For back injuries, definitely a recumbent bike.”
If you aren’t ready for the more intense exercises, walking is a great bridge. If you can, start off your recovery process with some nice walks. “I think it is one of the best ways to stay moving and keep cardio levels up,” says Dr. Luque. As you start feeling stronger, lengthen or speed up your walks, and then you can graduate to a harder exercise.
Your Mental Strength Matters
Your attitude towards recovery is everything. Getting frustrated is normal, but don’t let the set back get you down. Staying positive is one of the best things you can do while your body heals. “I think it’s the make or break of any recovery,” says Dr. Luque. “A determination to get better and the patience to do what is required will always help someone succeed.”