Anyone who has experienced a period of prolonged illness or injury will understand the impact such a condition has on the body. While doctors and therapists may tell you to exercise in a modified capacity, in reality, the energy and ability to do so may not be available at all times in the recovery process.
When an extended period of inactivity takes place, the body gradually allows muscles to shut down. This is true for everyone, not only people recovering from illness or injury.
For example, people with jobs that involve a lot of sitting will eventually experience a loss of muscle tone overall and in particular to their gluteus muscles. When muscles aren’t used, the body reduces the metabolic processes necessary for maintaining muscle and allows muscle to decrease. Injuries and illness also lead to the same type of muscle loss and can eventually become muscle atrophy.
Muscle atrophy occurs in two basic ways: (1) Disuse atrophy, in which muscles waste away due to lack of movement and exercise, or (2) Neurogenic atrophy, in which the muscles waste away due to disease or injury.
Disuse atrophy, the more common form, can occur in as little as 72 hours with smaller muscle groups. Large muscles, including leg muscles, take longer. When recovering from an illness or injury, it's likely that some form of disuse atrophy has occurred. Consider someone who has recently had a cast removed; the opposite limb is considerably more toned and muscular. Despite their best efforts, people who are healing rarely have the physical ability to participate in regular exercise.
It's extremely important that you listen to your body as you navigate your way through recovery. It will signal when it’s ready to attempt certain things and when you’ve done too much. Also, follow the guidance of your doctor or physical therapist, as each different type of illness, injury and the extent to which physical changes occurred will affect your return to physical activity.
Other factors that will have a significant impact on your return to physical activity include: your age, gender, the length of time since the onset of illness or injury, and the level of physical fitness prior to illness or injury. Someone with a torn rotator cuff injury for example, in good health otherwise, will return to physical activity much sooner than someone with a disc herniation and sciatica.
Consider the following things when reintroducing physical activity into your daily life:
1. Take it slow.
Allow your body and brain the time they need to begin communicating again. When your muscles are called to action, even in a relatively simple task, your brain and the muscles and nerves necessary to carry out that task must communicate. These channels of communication weaken over time and with disuse. Unless nerve damage has occurred, the communication signals can definitely be strengthened, but this process takes time; be patient. Your brain and body will relearn, given time and opportunity.
2. Begin with walking.
It’s the most natural type of movement for the human body. Swimming would also be a gentle form of movement on the body. Start with a few minutes, listen to your body’s response and gradually increase your time.
3. Reduce your efforts by at least 20% of what you think you can do and work your way up.
Movement brings humans immense joy. It’s not until you’ve lost or had a reduction in your ability to move as you once did that you realize how joyful movement is. This realization makes people very eager to return to physical activity.
While the triumph of the human spirit over adversity is incredibly inspiring, being overly eager can lead to re-injury. Making steady progress and feeling great throughout the process will motivate you to keep going, especially on days when you’re not feeling as motivated as usual.
4. Consider working with a physical therapist, kinesiologist, or a movement specialist with an understanding of your condition.
They can provide you with the step-by-step program you need to get you back to the level of physical fitness you want for yourself. Whether your period of inactivity was extensive or not, or your loss of muscle tone interfered with daily living or not, it is helpful to work with someone who can assess your ability to incorporate certain things into your regime and determine your readiness to progress.
A physical therapist can also provide you with a complete muscular evaluation and determine areas of muscle weakens or imbalances and create a program to address those needs, making modifications as you progress.
5. Remember that pain is pain.
While some fitness enthusiast live by the motto No pain, no gain, when it comes to illness or injury nothing could be further from the truth. Pain is the body’s signal that you’ve gone too far, done too much. Rest and recovery are as important to reintroducing exercise and the physical activity itself. Give your body time and listen to it. It speaks volumes about what it needs.
6. As you have throughout the rest of your recovery, continue to pay attention to nutrition and hydration.
Feed your body the best, most anti-inflammatory foods you can, including plenty of leafy vegetables and sufficient water.
Prolonged illness or injury can have a devastating affect on the body. Fortunately, the body’s default setting is health and wellbeing. The body will recover in time, given the right conditions. With a feeling of gratitude for all that your body has done for you and allows you to do, nurture yourself back to health by including nutrition, positive, loving thoughts, the management of stress and the joy of movement.