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Stay Active through an Injury

Is an injury limiting your ability to be active? Meredith Papps, Athletic Therapist discusses the mental and emotional side effects of inactivity after injury with 5 simple strategies to move more and feel better, despite your injury. 

Injuries can sideline you from doing the activities that you love. Since exercise has a positive effect on the brain, you may experience negative changes in your mood, stress levels, motivation, and overall emotional wellbeing when your activity level decreases. Whether it’s a stress fracture, meniscus tear, or rotator cuff strain, injuries can affect your brain just as much as your body. 

Mental and emotional side effects of inactivity include: 

  • Feeling low/ not yourself
  • Decreased motivation
  • Reduced sense of control/routine
  • Low self esteem 
  • Weight gain
  • Loneliness/isolation

You may notice that many of the symptoms above are indeed symptoms of depression, but it is not unusual to experience these changes even if you are not clinically depressed. 

How can you combat the negative side effects of reduced activity after injury? Let’s first take a look at the brain. By now everyone understands that exercise is good for overall health, but sometimes we don’t give enough credit to the positive effect exercise has on the brain. It’s important to understand the connection between exercise and how you think and feel, especially when your normal movement routine has been disrupted. 

Research shows that exercise triggers a chemical response in the brain and stimulates the production of “feel good” chemicals such as dopamine, endorphins, norepinephrine, and serotonin. This is frequently referred to as the “runner’s high”, but in reality, even small doses of physical activity (running or otherwise), can give your brain a boost. 

Whether you’re used to a high volume of strenuous activity or a low but consistent dose of walking, the same principle applies - move more, feel better. 

Now let’s add an injury into the equation. You can’t do what you love to do, and you’re starting to feel it mentally and emotionally. What can you do to stay positive and remain active? 

Here are five simple strategies for maximizing your movement and minimizing the negative effect that injury has on your mental wellbeing. 

#1 - Modify your activity 

When you can’t do what you love to do, it’s important to shift your focus to what you can do. A runner who can’t run is like a bird who can’t fly. Although it’s not always easy, choosing to exercise in a way that doesn’t aggravate your injury is a huge part of your recovery. Not only does it allow you to maintain your fitness, it keeps your brain fed with those feel good chemicals. If you’re unsure what activities are safe to do with your specific injury, talk to your practitioner. They can provide you with a list of things you can do to maintain your fitness and mental state without compromising your recovery.

#2 - Maintain your routine 

One of the most common excuses for not exercising is that there isn’t enough time. You might not be familiar with this excuse if you were very active prior to your injury. However, it is common to struggle with staying committed to a workout routine that is out of your comfort zone. Why is that? You have the same 24 hours per day that you had before you were injured, but your motivation isn’t quite as high. While choosing to make time for a different type of activity can be hard, being intentional to stick to a routine, no matter what the activity might be, ensures that you keep moving. When you do, you’ll reduce the risk of feeling that your injury has completely changed your life. Keeping up with a steady exercise routine can also limit weight gain associated with inactivity, a frequent cause for lowered mood and self esteem. To ensure that you continue to stay active in the midst of injury, schedule your workout for a time you are least likely to deviate from. Commit to this time and embrace the feeling of success when you follow through.  

#3 - Embrace small workouts 

Certain injuries will be more limiting than others, depending on the body part affected and what your usual activities are. But even small doses of activity can help you stay positive throughout your recovery. Consider an athlete with a fractured ankle or a person who has ruptured their Achilles tendon. Both of these injuries require a period of being non-weight bearing. Although this is certainly a game changer and does limit your options for exercise, there are still small ways you can stay active and improve both mood and fitness. For example, non-weight bearing core and hip strengthening can be done on a mat or upper body weights can be done sitting on a bench. For upper body injuries, focus on added strengthening for the legs and core and consider challenging your balance and agility. And don’t forget to be diligent with home exercises your practitioner has assigned. They are not only crucial to your recovery but also give you an aspect of your recovery that you can control. Pair the physical gains of these small workouts with the mental benefit of maintaining an exercise routine and you’ll find that your mood and overall outlook on recovery will be brighter. 

#4 - Try something new

While it’s easy to bemoan the fact that your injury is keeping you from your exercise passion, it also creates space to try something new. Most people are so focused on their specific sport or activity that they rarely deviate. But new gyms and fitness classes are popping up every day - indoor rowing, Lagree, aqua Zumba (yes, it’s a thing), you name it. There are endless opportunities to climb out of your sport specific box and try something new, and often in a cost efficient way. Nearly all gyms and fitness studios will offer either free or reduced rate classes for newcomers before making a larger investment. Although it can be intimidating to put yourself out there and do something you might not be the best at, there is a certain sense of excitement and accomplishment that comes with challenging your body and brain in a new way. Who knows? You might just fall in love with a new cross training activity you can continue even after your injury has healed. 

#5 - Talk about it 

The final strategy for improving mental and emotional well being after injury is to talk about it. Talk with friends, family, and your health care providers. It’s easy to feel isolated and alone when you’re in the midst of an injury, but being honest about how you are feeling can break down those walls and restore a sense of community. You may even consider scheduling an appointment with a sports psychologist who can provide you with specific tools and coping strategies that can help you thrive through your injury journey. 

We can all agree that injuries are no fun, but employing these simple strategies will help keep you on your game. Focus, discipline, and determination are characteristics you already possess. By applying these to stay active, you will come out of your injury physically, mentally, and emotionally stronger than you were before. 

Is an injury keeping you out of the game? Schedule an appointment with one of our practitioners and build a plan together to get back to what you love and stay active along the way!