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There is a tendency among fitness participants to assume that an injury means an end to attending fitness class — at least until the injury is healed. But that is not always the case. Whether or not you can continue attending fitness class (or how soon you can return) after an injury depends on the intensity, severity and location of the injury.
In many cases, it's possible to keep active. Even with a bandade on, you might still be able to exercise! It is important to let an injury heal, so there is usually a short phase when you must ice your injury, keep it rested, and wait for swelling and/or pain to end. 2
If your injury is in the upper body, you will find it easier to continue some exercising. If your injury is in the lower body, exercising will be slightly more problematic because you may not be able to put weight on the injury. But do not despair: there are still things you can do.
Below is a list of some common injuries and how you can work around them and still keep active, though it may be limited or different than what you are used to.
Injuries in the Upper Body
The shoulder joint is extremely mobile; this is a curse and a blessing. This large range of motion allows us to use our shoulder efficiently and effectively for many activities, but it also makes the shoulder extremely unstable, far more likely to be dislocated or injured than other joints.
Thus, shoulder injuries are common and can range from mild to severe. Three common injuries are impingement syndrome, rotator cuff tear, and shoulder instability (See Common Injuries of the Shoulder and the Knee). Arthritis and bursitis can also affect the shoulder. A person can expect range-of-motion restriction and pain in their shoulder with any of these conditions.
If you have a stiff or painful shoulder, or you are waiting for the shoulder to heal, you should avoid or moderate overhead exercises, as well as any activities that require the same movement that caused the injury (whether it is gardening or painting, or sports like badminton, golf, or tennis). The key is to listen to your body: if it hurts, see if you can make it less uncomfortable by putting down the weight, reducing the range of motion, or simply leaving that exercise out of your routine until your shoulder is better.
Wrist or Hand Injuries
Our hands and wrists are extremely intricate and complex, allowing us to do many tasks. But, as with the shoulder, some injuries are very common.
One of the most common wrist injuries is carpal tunnel syndrome. It is caused by repetitive motion: typing, gardening, crocheting and knitting, for example. Fingers and joints can also swell and hurt because of osteoarthritis. The wrist and finger joints can be quite painful; range of motion may be restricted.
If you have carpal tunnel syndrome, you need to avoid any exercise that puts a lot of pressure on your wrists, such as push-ups or wrist curls. You want to avoid bending the wrist backward.
Most other exercises should be fine, even if you have carpal tunnel syndrome or arthritis. You simply adapt to your particular tolerance level: choose a lighter weight (or use no weight at all).
The mother cat in this photograph is carrying her kitten at the nape of the neck. If only our necks would be so flexible!
The neck has a big job to do: The top three joints in the neck allow for most of the movement in the neck and head while other joints actually support the head. Pain can be in the neck — because of some problem with the supportive muscles — but pain in the neck may also come from the spine. There are a variety of reasons why neck pain occurs: muscular tightness or pinching of the nerves from the cervical vertebrae, for example.
Neck injuries can be minor and temporary: you carry home a heavy bag of groceries and your neck hurts for the rest of the day. But there are more serious injuries such as whiplash and long-term conditions such as degenerative discs, poor posture, or osteoarthritis. All of these conditions can cause pain and range-of-motion restrictions in the neck.
If you have a neck injury you want to avoid putting pressure on your neck. Overhead movements may not be possible, or at least limited. You will also want to avoid high-impact cardio as it can often make your neck feel worse.
You can still walk and cycle, and participate in low-impact exercise. You will have to experiment to see what you can handle. Your doctor or physiotherapist will be able to advise you.
Injuries in the Lower Body
The most common knee injuries are ligament and cartilage tears (See Common Injuries of the Shoulder and the Knee. There is also patellofemoral pain (behind the kneecap) and this can be quite debilitating. Knee injuries can be painful and sometimes swollen. They can remain a problem for a long time because you can't walk without irritating the injury — therefore, it is much more problematic to continue exercising with a knee injury than with any upper body injury.
With a knee injury, you have to avoid exercise that causes pain. That's why swimming is a good alternative. You can still lift weights, but it's best to do it while sitting down.
If you are a regular participant in Light Fit, you might consider attending Adapted Fit for a few weeks or months. In Adapted Fit, most of the exercises are done in a chair, so there is less weight on the knee. Even in Adapted Fit, however, there will be a few activities and exercises that will exacerbate your knee problem, so pick and choose carefully. If it causes pain to your knee, don't do it.
Feet and Ankle Injuries
Like the hands, the feet have a lot of big jobs to do, the most important being to support our entire body. Our ankle helps us to balance and our toes help us to walk. Our feet and ankles are intricate collections of bones, muscles, ligaments, tendons, and fascia. It's unfortunately all to easy to damage them.
We can twist our ankle and ligaments can be torn. There is also a condition known as plantar fasciitis — the fascia on the bottom of the foot is inflamed and can be quite painful. Foot injuries — like knee injuries — are problematic when trying to find alternative exercises while the injury heals because, of course, they bear the weight of our body.
If you have an ankle or foot injury, you should avoid running. Walking may be possible — just be sure you can tolerate it. Repetitive movement needs to end until you have less pain and/or discomfort.
When your foot and ankle can tolerate it, you should stick to non-weight-bearing activities such as cycling or swimming, or low impact cardio. As with knee injuries, you may prefer a class like Adapted Fit where exercises are performed in a chair. Always remember to make your own decisions about each individual exercise: if it hurts, don't do it. Wait for the next exercise that you know you can do without pain.
Some back injuries are permanent and worsen as we age, such as arthritis or stenosis. Other injuries are temporary: strains and sprains. We can injure our back fairly easily by simply lifting or turning incorrectly; some sports are more likely to cause back pain as well. Back pain can be in the upper back or the lower back. Lower back pain is more common.
How much exercise you do (or how much you can tolerate) depends on the severity and permanency of the injury. You should probably avoid running, overhead lifting, and certain exercises that require you to press or lift your leg (thus using the lower back).
Swimming is a good exercise for people who have back injuries. However, you can exercise as much as you feel you can tolerate. Listen to your body and avoid the exercises that you know cause you pain.
Hip injuries are often severe: such as a broken hip or hip replacement surgery. This article is not discussing problems which are that severe. But if you have merely pulled some muscles, then you may want to avoid exercise until you see if the discomfort lessens. If you have constant and severe hip pain, you should see your doctor. (If you are considering a hip replacement, see the article listed below titled "Hip Replacement.")
- Common Injuries of the Shoulder and Knee
- Back Problems
- Heat Injuries: Learn to Recognize the Signs
- Muscle Cramps and other Injuries
- Knee Replacement
- Hip Replacement
I am a BCRPA-certified fitness instructor in Vancouver, BC. I teach four classes at the West End Community Centre in Vancouver, BC, mostly designed for the older adult. The Inevitable Disclaimer: Everything published here expresses only my opinion, based on my training and research. What you do with the information is entirely your own responsibility. I am not liable for any injury you suffer that seems to be related to anything you read here. Always consult your doctor before beginning an exercise program. For other articles, return to the table of contents.