A How-To Guide to Exercise After Injury or Illness

A How-To Guide to Exercise After Injury or Illness

All of us have been there: you’re doing great – eating right, going to the gym, losing weight – and then you get the flu. Or twist your ankle.

Before you know it, it’s been over a week, and you haven’t broken a sweat once. Sometimes it’s a big deal, but sometimes the timing is just right, and even a small ailment can totally derail your fitness routine.

So, what do we do? Exercise is critical to losing weight, but so is avoiding further damage. So, first, give yourself time to heal. Then, try some of these tips to get back into exercise after injury or illness!

Pause or Push Through?

You’re not quite feeling 100%… but maybe you can make it. How do you know when to take the day off versus when to push through?

Here are a few guidelines to help you decide.


Most experts agree that exercising is okay if you have mild congestion, a light headache, or anything else that largely goes away with OTC medication.

Even so, don’t push yourself to the limit. Instead of doing sprints or interval training when you’re feeling under the weather, consider a peaceful walk or some yoga.

Your body tends to tolerate lighter, less aerobically-demanding exercises better when you’re not feeling 100%.

Regardless of what you decide: listen to your body. If you’re feeling progressively worse as the workout continues, it’s time to stop.

There are also some occasions when you should just take the day off – no trial-and-error needed. Don’t exercise if you have a fever, especially anything over 101°F (38.3°C).

Working out can actually increase your internal body temperature and make you sicker. WebMD also suggests a “neck check.” If your symptoms are above your neck (e.g., headache, congestion, etc.), it’s probably okay to exercise.

However, if they originate below the neck (e.g., cough, body aches, nausea/vomiting), it’s time to take a break until your symptoms clear.

Remember that your overall health is the most important thing. If your body needs a little extra time to recuperate from an illness, make sure to listen!


Even if you are listening to your body, sometimes it’s hard to differentiate between normal and constructive soreness from a hard workout and an injury.

Studies have shown that women have a higher pain threshold than men, which is an even bigger issue for ladies.

The chief difference between soreness and injury is the type of pain. While soreness is achy and dull, injuries typically cause sharper, more localized pain.

Also, the soreness usually starts about 12-24 hours after the workout, whereas injuries often (but not always) hurt more immediately.

If you think you’re injured, it’s important to avoid stressing the injured area or joint until it’s fully healed. Stay away from the activity that caused the original injury and any other movements that use that same area, muscle, or joint.

For minor sprains and strains, you can use PRICE – protection, rest, ice, compression, and elevation – to ease the pain at home. However, if your injury isn’t improving (or feels worse) after a week of rest and ice, it’s time to see a doctor.

Still, that doesn’t mean you have to stay on your couch for the next 4-6 weeks or however long it takes to recover.

Instead, try to think of ways to stay active without using your injured body part. For example: if you hurt your shoulder, swimming probably isn’t the best option, but evening walks around the neighborhood may still prove doable.

Return to Exercise

You were out for a while, but now you’re feeling better. You’ve got the doctor’s okay, and you’re ready to get back into working out! But where do you start?

It depends a lot on how long you were benched. If you were out for 2-3 days, it’s very different than if you were out for 2-3 months or even several years.

Out for Less Than 2 Weeks

Why pick two weeks as the tipping point? Research shows that cardiovascular fitness begins to deteriorate after about two weeks of inactivity.

The rate of decline varies noticeably person-to-person, but most people can expect to feel a decrease in fitness in the first 1-3 weeks of skipped workouts.

Thankfully muscle conditioning remains for much longer, even with extended periods of inactivity.

That being said, a week or ten days of rest isn’t usually a big deal. It can even be beneficial! Our bodies need time to rest and recover, especially if we’re fighting a recent injury or illness, so don’t be afraid to take a little time off.

Just be careful not to let yourself fall back into old, sedentary habits! When we’ve recently started exercising again, routine is paramount.

Sometimes the biggest threat of taking time off is not the physical deconditioning but instead the break-in pattern. So, as soon as you feel up to it, make it a priority to return to your health practices.

Out for More Than 2 Weeks

If you’re out for more than two weeks, you will very likely experience some level of aerobic deconditioning.

The rate at which your fitness declines is related to your starting fitness level, amount of activity while not exercising, age, gender, and a variety of other factors.

The Physical Part

Regardless of your current capability, the most important thing is to take it slow. Sometimes it’s really tempting to jump back in at 200% because you feel like you’ve been missing out.

Do your best to resist this temptation. Instead, start slow and work your way back up. The general rule is to begin at a comfortable distance/weight/intensity and aim for an increase of about 10-15% per week.

If you can easily walk one loop around the park today, your goal should be 1.1-1.2 loops around the park next week, maybe going a little faster – not two or three full circuits. Increasing gradually in distance and intensity helps decrease the risk of re-injury.

Here are a couple more tips to help on the road to recovery:

Listen to your body. A little pain or tenderness is part of the journey, but sharp or severe pains are not. If the pain is getting too bad, it’s time to stop.

Be kind to yourself. It’s normal to start at about 50% of your pre-injury intensity or distance and work your way back up. Don’t beat yourself up for being out of shape. Instead, be proud of your daily accomplishments and how hard you’re working on getting back in the game!

Cross train. Even if you love hiking, if you’re recovering from a broken ankle, hiking may not be the best option right now.

As a substitute, consider building your cardiovascular fitness with other activities (like biking, weight lifting, or even walking on pavement). Building your fitness through cross-training will make the return to your favorite activity that much smoother.

The Mental Part

The return to training is frustrating mentally too. We want to return and immediately have the strength and stamina to achieve what we did before we were sidelined.

Unfortunately, this isn’t usually the case. While the initial lack of ability can prove discouraging, power and endurance almost always come back in time.

We just have to set goals and be patient while we work towards them. Another common concern is re-injury. We’re sometimes scared about returning to sports and hurting ourselves again, especially if the injury was very severe or painful.

If re-injury is your concern, consider what caused the injury the first time and try to correct your form or modify the circumstances to avoid a repeat occurrence. More than anything, do your best to stay positive.

Specific Injuries

Above we talked about some general guidelines for returning to exercise, but what if you’re looking for some more specific recommendations? Or if your recovery isn’t going as well as expected?

If you think you need physical therapy or a more specific intervention for your injury, go see the experts. Your primary care doctor can help with basic injuries.

He or she can also refer you to a physical therapist, orthopedist, or sports medicine clinic if needed. So, if you’re not healing as well as you would’ve hoped, it can be very beneficial to speak to a medical professional about your injury and rehabilitation.

A Little Motivation

Sure, the physical part is a pain (quite literally!), but the psychological battle of returning to exercise after injury or illness is important too. If it’s the mental barrier that you’re struggling to overcome, here’s a little motivation to get you jump-started!

Will it be easy
good things take time
Be stubborn

We hope this helps answer some of your questions about exercise after injury or illness on your weight loss journey (and beyond!) If you have questions or comments, please share them with us in the comments section below!

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