Tips for Safe Exercise When You Have an Injury

Returning to fitness after an injury may be just what the doctor ordered. Being active is good for you, especially if you’ve been sidelined. “It’s important to stay mobile so you don’t make an injury worse or set yourself up for other ailments caused by inactivity,” says Lara Heimann, a physical therapist and yoga teacher in Princeton, NJ.

These steps can help you get back in the groove safely and effectively.

Get the OK From Your Doctor

If you have a serious health problem, check with your doctor or physical therapist before you start a new program. They’ll let you know if it’s safe to start up again and give you specific guidelines for your injury.

Start With Good Posture

Pay attention to your form. “When your posture is suboptimal, your chance of a reoccurring injury is greater,” Heimann says. “Look at this time as an opportunity to stand and sit taller and better.” Keep your spine long. Relax your shoulders. Move from the hips when you do full-body or lower-body exercises.

Change Things Up

Aim for variety instead of repeating the same exercises over and over. By varying your movement, you’ll avoid overloading or overstraining the area that was injured. This is the time for cross-training. “Walk, swim, or practice yoga -- and pay attention to your form,” Heimann says.

Dial It Down

Start exercising at a lower intensity than you normally do, or choose an exercise that’s less challenging. For example, if you usually lift weights, start with lighter weights. If you do squats, don’t go as far down as you used to. If you run, try walking first. Over time, you can inch back up.

Try Gentle Exercises

Low-impact activities or exercises that you can modify are good choices when you’re starting back up. Try yoga, Pilates, tai chi, swimming, water aerobics, rowing, or suspension training. Walking is another great option and may give you an added emotional boost. Studies suggest it helps lower stress and anxiety and boost your confidence.


Match Your Exercise to Your Injury

Heimann says certain exercises may be better than others for your specific injury:

  • Back problems. If you have a bad back, make sure you exercise with good form and choose activities that keep your hips mobile. Walk, climb stairs, or work on hip mobility drills like squats and lunges. Remember that good form is key.
  • Knee problems. Try strengthening and moving your hips and ankles. Walking, swimming, and movement techniques like yoga, Pilates, and tai chi are wonderful for improving hip and ankle mobility, which is good for your knees.
  • Shoulder injuries. Try stabilizing movements like slow yoga or weightbearing exercises led by a personal trainer. Walking and stair climbing are good choices. Swimming can be helpful for mobility, but avoid exercises that aggravate your shoulder.
  • Neck stiffness. Look for exercises that will improve your posture and mobilize your shoulder and thoracic spine. Try yoga or swimming. Pay attention to your posture, even when you’re not working out.
  • Tendinitis. When your tendons are inflamed from overuse, find exercises that balance the amount of work the nearby joint has to do. That way you won’t strain the joint more.
  • Muscle strain or pull. Keep moving, but stay away from large ranges of motion in the area where you’re injured until it has time to heal. Movement helps healing, but too much can impede it.

Watch for Pain

If your workout hurts, scale things back. Try limiting your range of motion, doing a different type of exercise, or lowering the weight you’re using. Listen to your body and get help if you need it.

Enhance Your Recovery

Add small things to your routine that help you recover better. Take time to stretch. After your workout, do deep, 60-second stretches. Try a foam roller to gently stretch and massage your muscles around your injury. Get a weekly massage. Try a yoga class. Drink enough water to stay hydrated every day. Eat well.

Be Patient and Flexible

The road to fitness takes time. Expect ups and downs. Aim for consistent workouts on a regular basis. If you hit a snag, feel pain, or need help, talk to your doctor, physical therapist, or trainer.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on October 28, 2020


Lauren Falk, PT, Kinetic Sports Medicine and Performance, Milwaukee, WI.

Lara Heimann, PT, founder, LYT Yoga, Princeton, NJ.

American Council on Exercise: “Getting Back to Fitness After an Injury.”

A Healthier Michigan: “6 Exercises for Limited Mobility.”

University of Wisconsin Health: “Exercise Options for People with Limited Mobility.”

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