Getting back to the gym after injury

[Content warning: Eating disorders and serious injuries will be discussed at points in this article]

Once you take a break from the gym, or whatever your exercise method of choice is, it can be a seemingly insurmountable task to get back at it. The stress that goes into climbing back on the treadmill can be made worse when the reason for your break wasn’t necessarily yours. Fate may have forced your hand, through injury, in becoming a couch potato, but that doesn’t make it your destiny. Here are some handy dandy tips on getting back into a workout routine when recovering from injury or illness.

Consult a doctor


This is the first thing you should do when making any large lifestyle-change or decision. I know this mightn’t be accessible for a lot of people, doctors are expensive, but it would be irresponsible for me, some rando loser with a blog, to not tell you to seek a professional opinion rather than just listening to a rando loser with a blog. I am not a doctor, or any sort of professional, just someone with a depressingly long history of injuries and illnesses (if you’ve heard of a joint or bone, I guarantee I’ve at least bruised it once or twice). This is doubly so if you have suffered with an eating disorder, as I know from personal experience that it can be hard to break what I guess you perhaps could insultingly call ‘bad habits’.

If you’ve seen a doctor already, follow the doctor’s advise to the letter. If they’ve given you a return window of, say, 2-4 weeks, take the full four weeks to rest & recuperate. You can come back at the minimum date, but unless you’re some superhuman it’s almost certain that, no matter how good it feels, it still hasn’t properly healed.

I broke a bone in my foot in 2010, came back at the minimum the doctor required, and it still hurts from time-to-time (especially in colder weather).

Don’t push your limits


When you first step foot into the gym after recovering, it can be tempting to pick up exactly where you left off. This, in my opinion, isn’t the best strategy for two main reasons: 1) You’ve taken time off, and if you can’t reach your previous mark you may be discouraged from coming back, and 2) you risk the chance of immediately re-aggravating whatever put you on the shelf in the first place.

It’s best to start off slow, sticking to light cardio or swimming depending on your injury. If your normal routine consists of a run on the treadmill, pulling like a dog on the rowing machine and working hard on the elliptical, maybe consider swapping it for a few laps in the pool or some slow walking around the track. If you’re mad for weight-lifting, maybe don’t lift anything above your head for a while, sticking to resistance training or smaller dumbbells.

The inspiration for this piece came from me partially dislocating my hip. As it healed all I thought about was getting in that leg press machine and testing it out. This is a phenomenally bad idea, because re-injury is depressingly common after a dislocation (especially for shoulder joints). Sure, I’ll probably be fine doing the leg press, but there’s a good chance I wouldn’t be, and it’s a chance I shouldn’t take if I want to stay off the physio’s table and in the gym.

Don’t forget your diet


This is a part you should definitely consult a doctor or dietitian for, I am not a professional.

If you’re just now taking a break from exercising, you may want to decrease  your food intake, or change how you eat because you’re losing out on the calories burned during your workout. As with everything, balance is key, and the balance needed during recovery is similar to that needed when working out. High-protein foods, like chicken (or Quorn, for you veggies out there), fresh vitamin-heavy fruit & veg, dairy products for calcium and fibre-rich foods are key to a healthy body, regardless of if you’re a gym-bunny or are laid up with a broken tibia.

I’ve always found it hard to keep a healthy relationship with food, especially when I’m feeling self-conscious about my weight or fitness. [CW] I’ve frequently fallen into the trap of starving myself to lose weight, but this isn’t a sustainable model for weight-loss or happiness. Find what kind of diet suits you, and the goals you have in mind.

Speaking of which…

Set yourself clear goals


Before setting out on your fitness adventure you should think about what it is you want to achieve. Want to lose weight? Set yourself a healthy, achievable goal weight, and in what time to achieve it. Want to gain muscle-mass? Plan your workout around your needs, and give yourself time to do so.

The key thing to do is to not put yourself under pressure. There’s no point having a goal of losing 100 pounds in a week, because you’re not going to do it without cutting off all of your limbs (please don’t do that), and you’re just setting yourself up to fail. If weight-loss is your goal, you generally don’t want to plan to lose more than 1-2 pounds a week, as anything more can lead to adverse effects on your health. Similarly, if you try to rush yourself in the gym you increase the chances of making some mistake and injuring (or re-injuring) yourself, wasting more time in the long run. Nothing wastes more time than trying to save time.

When rehabbing my dislocated hip, I piled on the ice-packs and tried to take the pressure off of the affected leg. This caused me to put more pressure on my other leg, and aggravated a niggling back injury (which, thinking about it, sitting at a computer chair to write this probably wasn’t the best idea…). I mean, hey, my hip is feeling pretty good, but my knees and back aren’t in the best shape they could be because I rushed things.

Don’t be afraid to take a break


When you’ve just come off of an extended break from exercising you can sometimes be reluctant to rest for a few days when you feel like you need it. Setting a regular routine is important, but if it’s not sustainable (or if you’re just finding it hard to get back into it) then you probably won’t last long.

Sleep is obviously important, but if you previously hit the gym every day and you now find yourself hitting the wall after two consecutive days, don’t be too discouraged, it’s perfectly natural.

I used to go to the gym every morning – yes, I was that dickhead who was there waiting at the door at opening time – and I fully intend on being that dickhead again, but I know that’s not going to be the case anytime soon.

The key to a long-term, sustainable fitness routine is pacing yourself, and setting yourself up for those long-term goals, not immediate gains.

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