The most important, yet least respected factor for injury recovery. In fact, it’s not just a factor – it’s a requirement!
For all injuries. Ever.
But it’s not as bad as people think!
Rest doesn’t mean no activity. And resting certainly does not mean you will waste away.
Injured? Do yourself a favor and read this article.
- ‘Active Rest’
– Be careful
– The break won’t make you fat
- How do I use ‘active rest’?
- How long do I need to rest?
– Pain is actually not a good guide
- Getting back to normal
Rest: the BEST injury treatment
It’s hard to convince people to exercise if they aren’t already active. But once people become engaged in a particular activity or dedicate themselves to a goal, it seems nothing can convince them to take a break.
Of course, dedication is great! Work, school, and other obligations shouldn’t be an excuse not to exercise for at least half an hour a day (and it doesn’t need to be hard, or every day)! For exercise, a couple days off a week is plenty, and you should be ready to rock!
However, there is at least one reason you should consider a longer rest: injury. For the majority of activity related injuries, rest could be the only thing you really need. No expensive pills or therapy. Just take it easy.
Furthermore, rest may be the only thing that does work. You can’t simply exercise injuries away, and no medicine (that I know of) can “speed up” your body’s natural healing process. Exercise comes into play during rehabilitation, but it doesn’t “speed up” healing either. See the articles ‘Healing vs. Recovery’, and ‘What Affects Healing?’ for more.
Many people try everything they can to avoid rest, only to continue aggravating their injury further. Ironically, this ultimately delays their recovery. Try rest first.
That’s where rest belongs. FIRST. Rehab comes after.
Yes, taking a break is disappointing, but resting doesn’t have to mean not exercising at all! Let’s discuss the concept of ‘Active Rest’.
‘Bed rest’ is definitely not what we are talking about here. It’s almost always better to keep an injury moving at least a little. Starting “early mobilization” as soon as reasonably possible should help you recover. You can read more about this here -> Early Mobilization for Injury Recovery. Still, at first, you have to rest.
So what is ‘Active Rest’? The idea is simple: do whatever activity or exercise you can while avoiding the use of your injured / painful body parts! Remember, it’s the injury that needs resting… not all of you!
The key is to think about what you can do, rather than what you can’t.
See ‘what to do while you are injured’ for a fun video example of young dancer (B-boy) practicing with a broken leg.
That’s it! Pretty simple concept.
Sure, you can remain active. But you have to make sure you are really resting the injury.
Occasionally, people hear about ‘active rest’ and ‘early mobilization’, and completely misinterpret the ideas to mean exercising despite the injury… not quite! If you sprained your ankle, you can and should start moving it soon after. But that doesn’t mean going for a run. That could take a while, depending how bad the injury is, and how well you recover.
What you want to do is provide the optimal environment for healing to occur. Keep exercising the rest of your body, while avoiding stress to the actual injury. The injury itself should only get a little bit of movement and slowly progress back to a pre-injury level of activity.
For example, if you’ve sprained your ankle, then by all means, head to the gym, and lift weights. Worried about missing aerobic exercise? Try upper body circuit training. You might get away with swimming pretty early as well – see the ankle sprain guide for details.
The break won’t make you fat
Even if you completely rest for two weeks (not even using ‘active rest’), you’ll be fine.
It takes about two weeks before any of your hard-earned ‘metabolic adaptations’ (like energy efficiency) even begin to reverse… and a month for any ‘structural adaptations’ (like muscle size) 1. Strength and muscle activation takes even longer to fade away 2. And you certainly won’t lose much of your athletic skills.
Unless you we’re eating like a cow the whole time, you won’t get fat.
So how do I use ‘active rest’?
At first, (one to three days – depending on severity) not even active rest is a good idea. You might accidentally stress the injury, disrupting the most important phase of healing. And even while doing an exercise that might seem not to use that injured body-part, it’s nearly impossible to truly keep something from taking any stress without putting a cast on it (and even then some forces will go through).
Within the first week, you should be able to start ‘active rest’. Find an activity you enjoy.
- Swimming for almost any injury. But don’t underestimate it, kicking your legs and swinging your arms during certain strokes can still put a lot of force on your body.
- Walking, jogging, sprinting, dancing etc. for any upper body injury. Watch the swing of your arms if you have a more severe shoulder injury.
- Weightlifting for any lower body exercise. If you’re worried about ‘cardio’, try an upper body circuit program (no rest between sets, moving from exercise to exercise quickly).
- Weight training can be very adaptable. You can work out one arm, but not the other (injured) side. This is something a full body exercise like swimming and running cannot easily do. Not every exercise has to be two armed or two legged (don’t worry, it takes a LONG time to develop a significant muscle imbalance). If you are really careful, you can exercise your elbow joint muscles without using your shoulder joint muscles (but that’s risky).
Whatever you decide to do, just remember to follow the advice above about being careful and progressing slowly.
While remaining active, you should simultaneously be treating the injury. Start early mobilization as described here: Early Mobilization for Injury Recovery
So how long do I need to rest my injury?
Ah. This question again.
It all depends on how your recovery goes, and how bad of an injury it was.
If you fully tore your ACL, chances are you will need to rest for a long time. Early mobilization may not be the best idea either. A 2009 study showed that for severe sprains recovery is better when the sprain is immobilized in a cast at first, as if it were fractured 5. Plus, certain conditions like repetitive stress injuries (RSI’s) can take longer. RSI’s are confusing. If your injury seems severe or stubborn, best to go to a professional, and not read how to fix yourself on the internet! :)
But for the mild strains, sprains, and pains, (that are pretty much guaranteed to happen if you’re an active person) it’s probably safe to start early mobilization soon, and recovery will be much shorter.
Generally: Most injuries are reasonably well healed in six to eight weeks, and almost completely in three months. It sounds long, considering you probably would never rest that long otherwise. But sorry, you simply cannot speed up your body’s natural healing processes, no matter what someone tries to convince you so they can take your money!
For some very rough guidelines on how long it takes to heal, read articles specific to the injury you are interested in:
Pain is actually not a good indicator of whether or not your injury has healed
There is an entire section of this site dedicated to pain. Pain can be very confusing: not matching tissue damage at all 6. Therefore, it’s not a good indicator of healing.
If you don’t have pain, don’t use that as a reason to think you’re completely healed. Many times people feel fine and decide to go full-out without taking a progressive approach. They then suffer a lot of pain the next day because they exacerbated their injury or condition. They also become very confused and discouraged. Then they get stressed, and the pain gets worse.
I strongly suggest that if you are dealing with pain, check out the pain section.
Getting back to normal: ‘Progression’
After resting, both volume and intensity of exercise have to be progressed. You can’t simply jump back into activity at the same level that you were before.
For example: A runner may get injured, take the time off they need, and then suddenly jump back into running slower, but the same number of kilometers per week that they did before. Too much volume, too soon. Or they do less, but instead of starting with a few walks, then up to a light jog, they just start running again. Too much intensity, too soon.
Both volume and intensity have to be progressed slowly. Take a step-by-step approach. And don’t skip steps! Even if it feels like you can go all out, don’t! You probably just have a lot of energy from resting.
Don’t worry! If you kept active in other ways as suggested above, it shouldn’t take too long, maybe just a couple weeks, to get back into pre-injury condition.
After resting an injury, you may require some rehabilitation to get back the full range of motion, strength, and coordination that might have been lost. Generally, early mobilization and a sensible step by step progression as described above will take care of these things. But sometimes you may need a little more help getting back to your pre-injury condition.
‘Active Rehabilitation’ is the most recommended approach. This usually involves light stretching, progressive strengthening exercises, and balance and coordination drills. This will be covered in an upcoming article.
- Rest is absolutely the most critical factor in the healing of any injury.
- Resting does not mean you have to sit around. Try ‘active rest’!
- Be careful. You can be active, but do everything you can to avoid stressing the injured body part. You truly have to rest your injury.
- You won’t get fat taking this break from exercise. Watch what you eat!
- At first, don’t do anything, just in case. By the first week, you can start ‘active rest’.
- Most injuries are well healed in 6-8 weeks, almost done by 3 months, but there is a LOT of variation. Repetitive stress injuries are confusing. Be careful.
- Pain is not a good indicator of tissue healing.
- Progress back into your sport or activity step-by-step, and don’t skip steps.
- You may need some rehabilitative exercise to get your strength, flexibility and coordination back to where it was.
Do NOT ignore the importance of rest. But at the same time, don’t stress about it. It’s not the worse thing in the world. Relax, perhaps even enjoy the down time.
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