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How to Prevent Weight Gain When You're Injured

By , Dr. Levi Harrison, M.D., Orthopedic Surgeon and Fitness Expert
Exercising regularly can be a challenge for many people even when they are healthy and injury-free. To maintain your fitness level, you have to be committed—and consistent—in your exercise routine. In my new book, The Art of Fitness: A Journey to Self-Enhancement, I dedicate two chapters to these principles alone because I know firsthand just how many people struggle to keep exercise a habit.
But what about those of us who suffer from an injury? As if there weren't enough barriers getting in the way of your desire to work out, an injury can really set you back—if you let it. Here are seven easy-to-do tips to assist you in maintaining your fitness level when you are dealing with an injury.
Make cardio (aerobic) exercise your #1 priority.
A healthy heart is a happy heart, and that is just as important when rehabbing from an injury. Focusing on cardio will also help you burn calories and prevent weight gain that can happen if you suddenly become more sedentary due to injury. So do continue to do cardio when injured. Heart health should be maintained even when recovering from an accident, or from overuse (tendonitis). Consult with your doctor to hear what he or she suggests you can safely do with your injury. There recommendations should be specifically tailored for your rehab program.
Aerobic exercise may seem impossible if you have a lower-body injury like an ankle sprain or tibia (leg) stress fracture, but I promise you—it's possible. You may have to get a little creative though. Consider using the handlebar rowing machine, whereby you are upright with no stress on the injured extremity or joint. Another cardio exercise that is non-weight bearing for the lower extremity is swimming, which is a phenomenal way to give your joints a break and to maintain flexibility, endurance, and strength.  
If you have an upper extremity injury, such has tennis elbow (lateral epicondylitis) or a boxer's fracture (5th metacarpal fracture), it is now essential to focus on the lower extremities to train your heart. You can consider using the recumbent bike or walking speed laps in the pool. These activities avoid direct stress on the area under rehab. Also, if you have been placed in a cast, avoid getting it wet and minimize activities with excessive vibrational stress to the fractured limb which may cause the fracture (broken bone) to move.    
Don't forget to stretch.  
When you have an injured area which is swollen and tender due to a sprain or strain, depending on the severity of the injury, gentle stretching along with ice on the area should decrease the inflammation in the area. Get the OK from your designated health care professional first, and then continue to stretch daily or take a seated stretching class while you are recovering. Stretching is excellent for the joints, ligaments and tendons. Remember to continue to stretch the uninjured side of your body also to avoid imbalances that can lead to further injury. Remember to consult with your doctor about the contraindicated stretches for the impaired limb.
Be mindful of your calories.
What you eat will correlate in part to how quickly you recover from an injury. Your fast recovery will get you back to a paced and graduated exercise program. I am a big advocate of "mindful eating," which involves eating with balance and moderation in mind. This is especially important when you are recovering from an injury. If you continue to consume the same amount of calories (or more) during you rehab program, yet you're moving less, you will most likely gain weight. Weight gain is an unwanted side effect that I see in many of my patients who simply eat more and forsake any aerobic conditioning during their rehab programs. Minimize any alcohol or sugary soda while your body is healing to optimize your healing potential. Continue to eat a variety of fresh fruits, nuts, vegetables and grains, and omega-3 rich foods, lean meats and some dairy. Tailor your rehab diet in a manner to avoid any foods which you may have an allergy or sensitivity.
Focus on weight bearing exercises.
Lifting weights can be a tricky proposition during an injury. Just remember if the upper body is injured, you can probably safely work the lower body. I recommend using the weight machines. If you have a wrist fracture or rotator cuff injury of the shoulder, for example, you can still use the leg press machine, hamstring curl machine, leg extension machine and/or calf raise machine. These exercises place no stress on the upper body and you simply have to place the pin at the desired weight, without lifting any free weights. If you have a knee or hip injury, consider using the machines for upper body conditioning such as biceps curls, triceps push-downs or bench press (flat, inclined, or declined). The sky is the limit for diversifying your workout with the machines, even when injured. Remember weight bearing activities can stave off the effects of osteoporosis also.
Talk with your health care team regularly.
It is critical that you are compliant and listen to your health care rehab team. I do not recommend simply treating yourself after the health care professionals lay out a comprehensive rehab protocol. Compliance is critical to a speedy recovery. I do suggest discussing any alternative treatments that you may want to utilize with them before you simply do it on your own. This may cause greater injury and delay your recovery. Consider getting a second opinion also. And remember to ask lots of questions. For you to find out exactly what is safe (what activities, intensities, frequencies and durations of exercise), you probably have to do a lot of the talking. Ask questions and get the clarity you need at each appointment so that you're not left wondering about it for weeks, missing day after day from exercise.
Rest, rest, rest.
The body recovers better from injury when it's not undergoing a lot of stress. Stress-producing hormones can affect our sleep patterns and our speed of recovery. Sleep is an essential component of healing the body. So get plenty of sleep and continue to incorporate rest and recovery days in your weekly workout plan.
Meditation is a great way to enrich your holistically healthy lifestyle. I recommend daily meditation for 15 -20 minutes to decrease stress, promote healing and to visualize a healed, happy magnificent body and life. A fit mind helps to create a healthy and strong body. Sit quietly. Visualize yourself fully recovered from your injury or accident. See your body healed and active again. Mediation is a fantastic way to improve your mindset about healing and creating an awesome body.
As always, consult with your health care team before using the aforementioned tips to make sure they are appropriate for you and your injury.
Keep on exercising! Exercise is life!
Have you ever struggled with maintaining a fitness program while injured? What did you learn from the experience?
About the Author
Dr. Levi Harrison, MD, physician, orthopedic surgeon and fitness expert, earned his Medical degree at The University of California at Davis School of Medicine. His Los Angeles-based practice is the center of excellence for sports-related upper extremity and shoulder injuries as well as hand rehabilitation, repetitive motion work related injuries, and restorative hand function procedures. In addition to being an avid sports enthusiast, fitness expert, motivational speaker and philanthropist, he hosts a weekly radio show on LA Talk radio. He is the author of "The Art of Fitness" (Brio Press, 2012), a thorough collection of exercises he developed to help others achieve an active, healthy lifestyle.

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NIKO27 4/15/2020
Great Article Report
DEE107 3/23/2020
thanks Report
REDROBIN47 3/18/2020
This is good advice to know. Thank you. Report
CECELW 12/6/2019
the tips and suggestions are the ones we are most familiar with. I am really thankful i've never had a serious injury on that level. Report
NASFKAB 11/3/2019
Thank you Report
MNABOY 10/1/2019
Have some questions but thanks Report
Good info Report
Thank you! Report
Great article! Report
There are a couple of broken links here. Quality control? Maybe needs updating? Report
Great info! Thanks! Report
Great information! Report
This is the easy first step. I have tendonitis in Achilles and shoulder so not much cardio I can do Report
Thanks! Report
Nothing much new here but timely since a recent knee injury. Badically it’s a reminder to watch every calirie during the inevitable diwn time. And Yes, do your cardio if you can , but gyess what, even swimming hurts now. Report
Nothing much new here but timely since a recent knee injury. Badically it’s a reminder to watch every calirie during the inevitable diwn time. And Yes, do your cardio if you can , but gyess what, even swimming hurts now. Report
I have a very weak stomach muscle, the doctor removed 3 herinas from my stomach. I cannot lift weight what do suggest.? Report
I have a very weak stomach muscle, the doctor removed 3 herinas from my stomach. I cannot lift weight what do suggest.? Report
Great information Report
Considering weight gain (or loss) is mostly a diet thing, watching calories during recovery is essential. I spent July-November recovering from a tibia plateau fracture. Repair involved a steel plate and 11 screws just below my right knee, and 4.5 days in hospital. I tracked my food during the entire experience, including while in the hospital. I started physical therapy the day after I was released, but had no weight bearing for eight weeks. Keeping the leg muscles, especially the quads, working was the main goal. I was not allowed to drive for 12 weeks, which is really helpful to cut down on any snacking! I not only didn't gain, I lost 8 pounds during recovery! Report
I tried all that and still gained. Arthritis doesn't really cure either. Report
Thank you for this advice. I am recovering from a tibial plateau fracture repaired with plate and screws. I was 12 weeks non-weight bearing, and gained 6 lbs. I used to be a lap swimmer but suffered a shoulder injury that has not resolved in 1.5 yrs. Some of my shoulder issues are degenerative in nature. I am 62. So I took up bike riding and had a bike accident and here I am. My surgeon and physical therapist have not been much help with advice for exercise. I think I will now try water walking. I should be able to do that. I can currently only stand for about 10 minutes. All of this is frustrating for someone who has always been active. Report
Wow. Thank you. Glad I clicked on this article Report
Not specifically mentioned here, but if you are hospitalized and off your feet, you have to be careful about well wishers bearing fattening gifts. Whether it be in the form of candy or other treats, or calorie laden homemade meals, you have to be careful. Obviously your calorie burn is down, so I think you have to be mindful of adjusting your calorie intake. Years ago I had a friend whose mother claimed that she gained 40 lbs after recovering from surgery for that reason. Just a thought. Report
Good info Report
Good article. Going through knee replacements and slipped and herniated disk. Try to do as much upper body as I can. This was very helpful. Thank you. Report
A good one! Thanks! Report
Thanks. Report
thanks Report
In general, good info. Wish there was more detail for folks with injury to back. Report
Wish that they would deal with people that have chronic pain and limited mobility due to arthritis and other stuff. But they only seem to deal with that have no chronic pain or limited mobility. Report
i wish this was more helpful. i got ran over by a car 4 years ago & am no longer well on my feet. i cannot stand or walk for more than 15m without pain. how am I supposed to do cardio? I don't have access to a pool or gym, running & walking is not even an option. i have arthritis in one of my feet so simply a change in weather brings my pain scale up. more suggestions / options would be nice. Report
Good to know. Report
I was hit by a semi 2 years ago. I had 1 year physical therapy (didn't do much good), pain patches, tens unit, all the PT modalities, tread mill (could do 5 min there) had 4 nerve blocks (didn't work), 2 back surgeries (L4, L5, S1) & pending neck surgery in 4-9 months, (chronic pain), etc and have gained 37 lbs. I had to do a lot of sitting because i had an extreme concussion for a year & when I moved fast/ a lot, lighted up rooms,-I wanted to vomit.Even at trains now- I still do. Before this I was walking 5 miles every other day & was in great health. Now I feel awful everyday. I take Ibuprofen around the clock-for the past 2 years so my stomach feels bad too.I am eating the same but gaining due to low activity. What can I do? I need to lose this weight because of how bad I feel. I think losing will help but i have been unable when weight was never an issue or losing until now. I have 4 kids & weigh more now than when I was 9 months pregnant. After I delivered my son (4th child) I only weighed 138. I have a pool but not allowed in until now (last week in August) so it will be getting cold soon & it's not heated. I can't afford anymore physical therapy due to all the medical bills I have.I borrowed almost $30,000 for 2 back surgeries. You would think this alone would make me work harder! Report
I am dealing with chronic pain & injury to my left hip. Perhaps one of those arm pedalling machines would work for me. Report
This is a great article. Most of us do gain weight when we've been injured and these are awesome tips. Report
Well Dr. Good info but my injury is so complex and talking to my health care people becomes useless. I live in a small town , less than 500, my Dr.s are 30mins away and everyone is literally scared to touch me. An amputee has a lot more possibilities than me but I'm trying. My saltwater pool is now clean and ready but due to my mental state I didn't use it last year! (PTSD, Anxiety, Depression) I've been it once see we uncovered it and it felt great. Our heater is working properly, so I wait till the sun warms it up. I have a Titanium Rod in my right leg-from knee to ankle and lots of Hardware, if that water is too cold my leg and toes get the best of me. I can't run obviously, I can walk very far, I can't bicycle, so my pool is it. Give me suggested when I'm not in my pool,when the weather is bad, and my L4,L5, and T1 are pedruding. I love stretching my back. They discovered some scoliosis in my neck as well. Love to hear your feed back. Report
I broke my neck in several places requiring a pin in my vertebrae. During the same accident I shattered my wrist and have 8 pins in place. That was almost 5 months ago. I neglected to go for physio on my hand as Ive managed to get almost all my motion back. Its difficult to exercise as I usually prefer high intensity workouts and the Drs have advised me to not jog or lift any weights. I do what I can and have started walking to work and home every day, a 50 block round trip. Every little bit helps Report
Thanks for this article. It's very encouraging. I have a knee injury right now. I am so afraid to injure it further, but your article encouraged me to work around it. I can still do arobics sitting down and using my upper body. I can still do upper body strength exercises and I can still walk around even though I am slower and stiffer and limping around. I know the injury is temporary and it is getting better every day. I also know I better curb the calories so I don't gain weight while I am recovering. Thank you for the article.

Janice Report
hi,i have had 4 back surgerys and 2 neck last year they put a back stimulater in my back to help with the pain but during my down time after surgery the back musles got weak I just got where I can walk around the block and make it home before I go hurting so bad and cant make it home I am going to join the YMCA this Friday to do Aerobics in the pool I have a treadmill here at home but I can only walk on it for 5 mins at a time is there something else I can do I need to lose weight I was 145 now I weigh 207 and that don't help the pain in my back I want to be able to do things with my 8 grandkids I was walking 5 miles a day before the last back surgery realy want to get better any ideals that will help me lose weight and be able to get out and do things Report
My activity has been severely restricted for 5 months. I have been working with my health care professionals to find a cardio activity that will not exacerbate symptoms. No success so far. I have been able to stretch, do PT exercises and very light, gentle minimal walking. To prevent the weight gain 500 - 600 calories have been removed from my nutritional intake. I am menopausal and hypothyroid and the weight has held steady. For that I am grateful. Report
I am currently getting perineural injections from my lower back all the way down my right leg. The pain is so intense I can't stand, sit or lie down comfortably. What aerobic exercise would you recommend? I'm getting depressed because even with watching my food intake carefully, I need activity to keep my weight from ballooning thanks to being hypothyroid. Report
This article was just what I needed right now. I have seriously injured my right knee and while limping as I walked, my left ankle feels sprained. I really enjoy walking my 2 dogs. It is painful, frustrating, and demoralizing right now. I see am orthopaedic surgeon next week so I hope he has some possible solutions. Of course, weight is always an issue making the whole situation worse.

Your article was a great reminder to keep doing upper body work. I am determined to do the work I need to do to get back to enjoying taking my dogs for a walk every day. Report
# months ago. I broke my hip and had pins place about two months ago I started gaining back the 25 pounds I lost. I am up 10 punds..uggg! It has been very depressing and I have been eating whatever I want..It needs to stop today. My biggest problem I am having now is I have developed very bad sciatica from an old injury and at theray they had me doing other things and now I have nerve pain down my neck. I am hoping it calms down soon. I really must lose weight., but for now I am going to track my food more carefully! Report
Not being mindful of all this stuff landed me where I am today. I did a horrible job maintaining my fitness due to an ankle injury. I wish I would have read this sooner, all of this advice is spot on. Injuries don't just hurt your body, they hurt your mind and motivation. Meditation and feeling right about working within your means are the keys to staying ahead. Report
I was rear-ended (not a fender-bender, the guy was going full speed and I was stopped) at the end of January. I'm still going to the physical therapist twice a week. Can't do anything where I pump my arms (such as water-running, my go-to activity since I broke my ankle in 1991). Can only walk for about 15 minutes at a time. But the mini-cycle, which I peddle while in a comfortable chair, is my new best friend! I actually managed to break one today! Ran out to Sports Authority to get a new one this evening. If you have problems with your legs, you can put it on a table and make it an arm cycle. Report
I had knee surgery 2 months ago and had a hard time returning to normal. I am finally walking again but it took longer then what the doctor said, so I became depressed that I could not do what he said I was capable to do. I am up to four miles a day but not walking as fast as I would like. I feel I am finally making progress and things can only get better. Report
I had knee surgery 2 months ago and had a hard time returning to normal. I am finally walking again but it took longer then what the doctor said, so I became depressed that I could not do what he said I was capable to do. I am up to four miles a day but not walking as fast as I would like. I feel I am finally making progress and things can only get better. Report