Workout Work-Arounds When Your Body Is Challenged

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You know exercise is good for you. But what if your knees, hips or back ache from arthritis? Or extra pounds make exercise challenging? Or you’re wheelchair-bound or have a mobility-limiting condition?

When it comes to exercise, these issues are not deal breakers, says Greg Schultz, physical therapist at the Center for Sports Medicine at Upper Valley Medical Center.

In fact, avoiding exercise leads to greater limitations. “You’ll lose a lot of muscle mass and your joints will atrophy,” he says. “Over time you will lose strength.” Your heart health will decline, too. Plus, you’ll miss out on the mood elevating effects of physical activity. 

Instead of passing up exercise, he recommends, change it up. And try some workout work-arounds.

“There are lots of exercises that are weight-bearing and increase pain in the joints.” But alternatives, he says, such as bicycling, swimming and water aerobics “take weight off the knees.”

Walking is another good alternative that is relatively low impact and aids in weight loss, which reduces joint stress. As you gradually increase the length of your walks, you’ll strengthen your leg muscles, improving your balance, Schultz says.

“Muscle soreness is normal after exercise,” Schultz says. “But if you have joint pain, modify your exercise.”

Take Your Exercise Sitting Down

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But what if you’re recovering from an injury or have a condition that rules out walking?

You can exercise sitting down in a chair or wheelchair. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Straight leg raises. “You can add ankles weights – whatever you can tolerate,” Schultz says.
  • Arm ergometers – pedals you turn with your hands and arms to give your heart an aerobic workout
  • Isometric exercises, in which you push against an immovable object or body part, such as hand against hand, without moving joints. This maintains strength and prevents muscle deterioration.
  • Bicep curls or other repeated lifting exercises with dumbbells or household items like soup cans. The tension of resistance bands secured to stationary objects offers similar muscle-strengthening results. 
  • A recumbent bike, which provides back support along with an aerobic workout
  • Flexibility exercises, like stretching and yoga, to prevent stiffness, reduce pain and enhance your range of motion

Other Workout Workarounds

Similarly, if you have upper body limitations – a shoulder injury or arthritis, for instance – focus your workout on your legs and core.

You can modify exercises to compensate for joint pain:

  • Squats can strain knee joints. But a physio ball can take off some of the strain and help support your lower back. As you stand with your back against a wall, squat with the ball positioned against your lower to mid back. Or you can limit your squats to a tolerable range. 
  • Body weight exercises, such as pushups and planks, can be modified so that your forearms bear the weight, instead of your hands and wrists – or knees, instead of feet.

Schultz recommends consulting with your primary care provider or physical therapist to find exercises well suited to your needs and physical limitations. “It’s important to get professional help to target areas that need strengthening,” he said.

How do you know if you’re overdoing exercise? “Muscle soreness is normal after exercise,” Schultz says. “But if you have joint pain, modify your exercise."

Schultz-Greg

Greg Schultz, PT, DPT, CSCS

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