Advice for the weekend athlete—use exercise for healing


I talk a lot about fitness in my columns, but I’ve yet to address the role it plays when recuperating from an injury. From wounds and broken bones, to muscle, ligament and tendon tears, a fit body is a body that heals well, since returning to good health is a lesser battle if your physical conditioning is optimum in the first place.

With a physician’s OK, exercising throughout your recovery will help speed up the healing process as low impact activity ensures your blood stays well-oxygenated, your muscles stay strong, and your heart remains healthy, too.

Injury is almost synonymous with tissue inflammation, so it’s good to know several group studies have shown that consistent, moderate exercise reduces systemic markers of inflammation in individuals 60 and older with little exception. The C-reactive protein produced by the liver that increases inflammation in the body was proven to be lower in the bodies of active people. Furthermore, working out ramps up the immune system by prompting the release of cytokines. These anti-inflammatory proteins improve the ability of your cells to signal for help building and repairing tissue.

During recuperation, there are most likely sound parts of your body you can still exercise. If your leg’s broken, concentrate on upper body workouts such as light weight lifting and resistance training, or if it’s reversed, you can still work the muscles in your legs. Aerobic activity and weightlifting lend themselves to bone regeneration.

Tears, strains, and sprains of muscles and connective tissue are setbacks athletes frequently experience. Consider the example of Suesan Pawlitski. The dance instructor shared her story of recovery that’s as inspirational as it is aware.

“There have been many times in recent years that I have been very grateful I exercise, but recovering from rotator cuff surgery was a real eye-opener. I realized that I needed strength and agility in many other parts of my body to compensate for the loss of use of an arm for several weeks. My rehabilitation went smoothly because my muscles knew how to recover from breaking down. And at 62, I can’t imagine my life without moving every day.”

And then there’s Chris Ecklund’s journey back from partial tears of his right lateral collateral (LCL) and anterior cruciate (ACL), part of a group of ligaments that operate the knee. The owner/operator of Prevail Conditioning, who sustained the injuries during a soccer match, was frank when asked to relay his story.

“After a clear diagnosis that the tear was not complete on the ACL or LCL, I rested, iced and compressed for one week and didn’t train my right leg,” he said. “I did continue strength training every other part of my body. After one week I began working on stability and basic range motion patterns. Over the course of the next three months I was able to regain the strength and stability (I had lost). At about five months, the knee was strong enough again to play most sports, and felt comfortable and strong.”

Professional runner Ricky Ho offered wise words, too.

“I no longer feel the same as I did in my 30s,” he said. “I don’t back-to-back race anymore, since I need more time to recover. My advice: Listen to your body. No one knows its strengths and limitations better than yourself. If you don’t feel your body is ready, don’t push it. Get back too soon, and re-injury will make it worse. . . . I do occasionally swim when recuperating from an injury. Swimming is a very low-impact sport, and a great substitute for running.”

Preventative measures are the surest bet. You can avoid injury altogether if you train smart. Just ask Tyler Hansen, an elite runner who competes at the national level.

“I have literally only had one injury in the last nine years of running,” he said. “I believe I haven’t really had to deal with injury issues because when I start training, I gradually build up my mileage so that I don’t overdo what my body can handle. I make sure to listen to my body, so I may take a rest day (no running) if I feel like that would be beneficial. . . . The next thing is having good running form, which is crucial when you think about how much force is put on your joints while running. To go along with that . . . go to a local running store to get the right shoe for you. After running a race, such as a marathon . . . I make sure to take time off to allow my body to heal before getting back to training.”

Listening to your body’s cues is tried and true. But if you do find yourself injured, staying fit while recuperating isn’t just possible, it’s helpful to the process. Talk to your doctor and find out what you can safely do to maintain your fitness and recover quickly.

Robiscoe is a published author and certified fitness trainer through the National Academy of Sports Medicine. Email her at or visit her at