Exercising with Injuries: My 10 Top Tips
Wednesday, November 07, 2012
Exercising with a wonky knee is challenging. Living in a damp climate doesn't help but then neither does having added weight on my joints. I'm actually lucky, and I remind myself of this on days when the knee is really playing up and I'm grumbling and making my way to the gym in the rain, thinking about how I could be in a warm, soft bed.
I'm lucky because if I didn't have my tricky knee and a whole host of other medical problems too depressing and lengthy to go into here, I'd probably still be sitting on my couch, eating Pringles and chocolates and making excuses for why I can't be more active.
The past eight weeks have been a good primer on what to do (and not to do) if you have knee/joint problems. Insert disclaimer here, explaining that I'm not a fitness expert, a doctor, or an instructor. I'm just an overweight, middle aged woman learning to exercise with knee problems.
1. INVEST IN A GOOD PAIR OF SHOES
I can't stress this enough. My sad, worn-out trainers were giving me little support, as I wore them for walking/running/zumba and boot camp training. No surprise that I was experiencing more than usual ankle tightness and my arches started to hurt. Find shoes that fit your feet and body, and that are right for the type of exercise you are doing. Yes, you may gasp at the price of good shoes, but weigh that against knee surgery. Plus, there are some pretty cute styles. :)
2. SPEAK UP!
Tell your instructor you have an injury - or point to your knee thingy strapped to your leg. It scares people because no one wants a lawsuit. At first I was quiet about it in class, too ashamed to own up to my pain. Boy, was that a mistake. I spent far too many nights holding bags of frozen peas to my leg and crawling (literally) up the stairs. A good instructor will give you alternatives and look out for you in class. They will let you know which exercises are safe and which ones you should opt out of. In my Zumba there are three people with knee problems, two of them sprinters. We don't jump in the air like the other crazy people, or do that really low thing where your booty is almost touching the ground. But if it is cardio you want and you like dancing, there is still plenty you can do in class. Don't let this be a reason to quit but at the same time let them know about your challenges.
3. START SLOWLY
Don't disregard the power of low-impact. It may not drench you in buckets of sweat, but if you are worried about your joints, this is an excellent option. Walking, Yoga, Pilates and AquaFit are my faves. I incorporate them into my weekly routine and they've been instrumental in strengthening my muscles and body overall. Walking in particular is such a great exercise to get you going if you're just starting out or a bit cobwebby in the exercise department. It makes me feel happy too. Even when it is damp and chilly. I put on my headphones and clear my head, breathing out and thinking of the day ahead. To think of all my past lame excuses when I derive so much pleasure from working out. BTW, my Aqua class is filled with elderly ladies with joint problems. Not creaky knees like mine, we're talking knee replacements, hip operations, a walker in one case. Yet they attend religiously 3x a week. Puts me to shame.
4. EAT A BETTER DIET
Eating right makes all the difference in the world. For years, I ignored this advice, even though I almost always felt a noticeable twinge in my knee and hips when I drank coke. Not sure exactly what that correlation was about. Perhaps the sugar? Perhaps an additive or something else? Not that it stopped me from my junk food addiction. In any case, I've removed the soft drinks and sugar, upped my good fats (avocado, coconut, nuts). I'm taking a fish oil supplement and Vitamin D, as well as including more fresh fish in my diet. Perhaps it is too early to tell but there has been a noticeable decline in pain and inflammation overall. This is good news indeed.
5. MOVE IT AND LOSE IT
I know I'm preaching to the converted, but losing weight has done wonders for my joints. They still ache and maybe that won't ever go away but losing even a little makes a HUGE difference. Rather than sitting on my butt, I'm having to cart my body around all day, more aware than ever of every single pound. And when I lose one, my knees rejoice and feel it 10x. Let's face it, this is a catch 22. If you are heavy, you will find it harder to exercise because of the extra strain on your joints, but if you don't, that pain will most likely not get better. It hasn't in all my years of sedentary life. Moving in my case, is the solution not the problem.
6. GO AT YOUR OWN PACE
This is something I'm still learning. In my excitement, I often forget that people have been doing this for a lot longer and they are usually in better shape. This is not a reason for me to quit or not try, but I have physical restrictions, as much as I try to ignore them. Remember that it isn't beneficial if you pull or pinch something. An injury can put you out of commission for a few weeks, months even! So do what you can and don't feel guilty. I find ab work particularly hard on my knees. I do what I am able, but if I feel a pull, I lower (or bend) my knees. I'm still getting a workout, but at a lower pace that won't put more stress on my joints.
7. LOOK FOR ALTERNATIVES
Like tip number 6, you don't have to do everything everyone else does. Your leg may not reach as high, bend as far, or you may not be able to do all the reps. Work intelligently, knowing that you are doing your body a world of good just by being there. When you gets stronger, you will be able to do more. For now, focus on toning and strengthening what is in your reach. Every little bit counts. Think about that old saying: you must learn to walk before you run.
8. LISTEN TO YOUR BODY
This is a common sense tip and yet people fail it all the time. I myself like to think I can do more than I actually can. Enter pride, arrogance, stubborn pigheadedness - all qualities that help get me out the door in the mornings but that can also injure me if I don't listen to my body. DO NOT continue exercising if you feel real pain. Not a twinge or your usual discomfort. I'm talking weird pulling sensations, cracking, popping, muscle spasms or cramps. Stop whatever you are doing if you feel these things. If the pain persists, see a doctor. Don't damage your body further out of obstinacy. There is a fine line between feeling the burn and getting burned if you ignore pain. Runners are notorious for getting injured and staying injured. A girl from my gym was lifting weights with her weight-lifting boyfriend and trying to impress him, overdid it. She was in terrible pain because instead of stopping, she tried to ride it out and badly strained her upper arm muscle. The thing was swollen like a sausage.
9. CONSIDER A NEOPRENE KNEE OR ANKLE BRACE
I have to credit Sparkmember Stonecot for this suggestion. Runners with injuries wear them, as well as tennis players, skiers and now, yours truly. So far, it's done a good job of keeping my knee in place instead of falling to the ground and escaping as far away from me as possible. Probably because I keep putting my joints through cruel and unusual punishments in the form of cardio boot camp and Zumba. If the knee brace thingy doesn't stop your pain, at the very least it will give you extra sympathy points from ruthless class instructors. Although mine didn't bat an eyelash. He made me hold heavier hand weights to compensate from opting out of his brutal step/lunge/squat regime. *Shiver*
10. HAVE FUN
Seriously. Don't do things you dread. Look forward to the activities that will get you moving, whether that's a nice, brisk walk, a long swim, or a dance class that will drench in sweat. Do what you love and enjoy every single minute, thanking the universe because you still can move and do things and that is a real blessing that most of us take for granted.