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Health & Wellness

How to Keep an Injury from Bringing Your Fitness Program to a Halt

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I was doing jumping lunges during a strength-training class at the gym when I experienced a sharp pain in my left knee and then felt the knee buckle. I literally crawled out of the studio.

When the club manager saw me grasping my knee and wincing, he promptly provided a bag of ice. “Will I be able to take the spin class I signed up for tomorrow morning?” I asked.

“You might want to take it easy for a few days,” he suggested.

Those few days stretched into months. I hired a dog walker for my energetic golden retriever, put my gym membership on hold, and waited weeks and weeks before going to an orthopedic clinic to get my knee examined. The X-rays revealed no serious damage.

My diagnosis was patellofemoral pain syndrome. More commonly known as “runner’s knee,” that’s a broad term used to describe pain around the patella, or kneecap. I was given a referral to a physical therapist, who led me through exercises to stretch and strengthen muscles at the knee and hip and improve alignment. With a little bit of searching on the Internet, I found illustrated guides, including one from Princeton University and another from Kaiser Permamente, that were helpful for my at-home recovery regimen.

Still, in those months before I adopted this program, I had lost muscle tone in my upper body, gained a few pounds, and found myself feeling depressed about my lack of mobility.

Today, a year after that unfortunate lunge, my knee is pretty much back to normal. But looking back, I wish I’d taken a smarter approach to my injury rather than using it as an excuse to become a couch potato.

I spoke to Cary Raffle, a 62-year-old New York City personal trainer and certified orthopedic exercise specialist who sees clients from 50 to 92, on how to keep an injury from bringing your fitness program to a complete halt.

“More than 95 percent of the time you can work around an injury,” Raffle tells me. Here’s how:

  1. Learn to tell the difference between soreness and an acute injury. “Soreness is typically experienced as a dull ache, and the onset is usually the day after you do a new exercise or increase the weight, intensity, or number of repetitions.” That soreness can actually be a good thing, a sign that you’re continuing to challenge yourself in your workouts. An injury, on the other hand, “is usually going to have an immediate onset and a sharpness,” says Raffle. While you can ease up your workouts for a day or two in the aftermath of soreness, if a painful injury persists for more than a few days, you’ll want to have it checked out by a healthcare professional.
  1. Remember that consistency is key in maintaining an exercise program. “Years ago, when someone had a knee or hip replacement, they’d be advised to lie in bed for weeks,” Raffle says. “Now we recognize that getting moving as soon as possible is an important part of recovery. And the same goes for injuries. Part of this is mental; if you went to the gym three times a week or walked every morning and you quit completely, that may lead you to feel weaker and more debilitated.”
  1. Don’t go to extremes in avoiding exercise or activity. “If your doctor or physical therapist is suggesting you avoid a few different exercises while you’re recovering, you should follow that advice,” Raffle says. “But you don’t want to go beyond that and impose additional restrictions on yourself. If you injure one joint, you can work everything else or the opposite side of your body. In the case of a knee injury, you may still be able to do hamstring curls, glutes-strengthening moves, and, of course, upper body exercises at home with free weights or resistance bands, even if you do them while seated. Likewise, with a shoulder injury, you may be able to maintain a walking program or do lower-body exercises, even if these need some modifications.” Be sure to discuss options with your healthcare provider, getting their approval and suggestions prior to adopting an exercise regimen while recovering from an injury.
  1. Consider a session or two with a personal trainer. “Doctors and physical therapists can help repair an injury,” Raffle says. “But when it comes to moving forward after that, a couple of sessions with a physical trainer can be a worthwhile investment.” Make the most of your time by letting the trainer know ahead of the session that you want to leave with a specific exercise program, with hands-on instruction in how to do a full-body workout at the gym or at home. Then, schedule a follow-up session in three to six months to check your progress.

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