What to do when you’re sick or injured

Recently, I had a pretty big health scare that I’m grateful resolved without further escalation or any long term issues. As a result, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be healthy and WTF do you do when illness or injury happens and you’re sidelined, because it’s miserable AF.

I know the fitness industry tells you that fitness is supposed to be a ride or die, rain or shine, it sickness and in health, but let’s be real. Not only is it total BS, but it also may get in the way of your recovery.

When you’re compromised, often your smartest, safest, and fastest path to returning to health and your activities pre illness or injury is to focus on recovery.

I’m not a doctor and this isn’t medical advice, but here’s what I’ve been doing as I recover from my own recent illness / what lines up with being reasonably evidence based.

Hydration

I know! How unsexy is that? But when you understand the benefits of H2O, slap some nipple tassles on that water bottle, because water just got a whole lot hotter.

Why it’s important: 

Hydration affects all systems of the body, including:

  • Kidney function
  • Cognition
  • Physical performance
  • Likelihood of injury
  • Your immune system
  • How your heart works

…and more. Here’s an evidence based overview of this.

When you’re ill or injured, your body has to work harder to repair things AND particularly in the case of illness, it’s easier to become dehydrated and for your electrolytes to get out of whack, which can affect things like kidney function.

If you’re wondering why kidney function is important, it’s because they’re responsible for removing waste and extra fluid from your body. In fact, for all the time we spend talking about “detoxes” in fitness or wellness, your kidneys are one of the few things that actually does this effectively.

In short, hydration is one of the simple (and few things) you can do to take care of yourself in a situation where you don’t tend to have a lot of proactive options for self-care

What I did to increase my fluid intake while I was down for the count and really struggling with hydration…

  • Broth: There was a point where straight water or anything sweetened made me nauseous, so most fluids were out of the question. However, I could tolerate broth, so broth was what I drank!
  • Electrolyte water: Some examples include Pedialyte, sugar free Gatorade, coconut water, Propel, or that ultima powder. Really, whatever appeals to you. You don’t need to go nuts with it, but this *may* help restore your electrolytes if things have been compromised.
  • Water: I kept a bottle of water nearby and took tiny sips when my stomach allowed. I know #duh but seriously. You don’t need to chug massive amounts of water all at once, but sipping throughout the day is a good practice even when you aren’t sick or injured.

Prioritize protein + nutrient dense foods

I’ll keep the nutrient dense foods commentary brief. I’m referring to things like fruits, veggies, nuts, ect. I’m NOT saying that you have to “eat clean,” which is utter nonsense. This is pretty straight forward, but nutrient dense foods are typically always a good idea.

However, when you are sick or injured, it’s something that can support your body in healing. Beyond that, when you are injured, you may not be able to exercise the way that you would like. However, you can still place a (preferably non obsessive) emphasis on eating nutrient dense foods.

What that looks like will be different for everyone and when you’re sick, your options may be limited based on what is appealing and what your body can handle. There’s also the issue of budget, so know that there’s nothing wrong with frozen or canned fruits and veggies, which the fitness industry loves to claim are inferior to the fresh stuff. I feel like I am using this word a lot, but that rhetoric is privileged, elitist nonsense. Make the choices that work for your individual needs, time available, and budget. If it’s not perfect. Meh. No need to beat yourself up.

Finally, this is not to demonize “fun” foods. It’s just to say that nutrition plays a role in the health and fitness puzzle, particularly when your options for proactive action have been limited.

Moving on. Let’s talk about protein!

There will be certain health conditions / situations where this doesn’t apply. When it doubt please consult your medical provider, but for many of us, protein should be your BFF when recovering from illness or injury.

Why protein is one of the MVPs:

Here’s how your body uses protein:

  • Build and repair your muscle, skin, and other tissues in the body.
  • To help fight infection, balance fluids in your system, and transport oxygen throughout your body
  • Protein intake also plays a role in body composition, fat loss, and satiety, so it’s good to make sure you are getting enough protein for your activity level even when you are well.

In short, adequate protein intake can have a lot of benefits, but it’s particularly important when healing needs to take place from illness or an injury.

How much protein do you need?

That depends on the individual, their size, activity level, goals, ect. Here’s a guide on protein intake from examine.com, which is a self described independent and unbiased encyclopedia of nutrition. You can use it to get an estimate of how much protein you need. You can also consult a registered dietician.

Personally, I struggle with protein intake. When it doubt, my natural tendency is to want to eat all the carbs, even though I always feel better when I prioritize protein.

This is particularly true when I’m sick, so here are a few of the strategies I’ve employed. Some were specific to when I was sick. Others, are just things I do it increase my protein intake on regular basis.

  • Protein powder. Make it in a smoothie or drink it with water first thing in the morning, but it’s a relatively simple way to increase your protein intake.

This is not an affiliate link, but I like the protein powders from True Nutrition, because they have non whey options (like many people, whey upsets my stomach) and they use third party testing for all of their products, which makes them more ethical / regulated than many of the other supplement companies in an industry that is completely unregulated. Also, the french vanilla flavor is a safe bet that blends with everything. I buy it every time.

  • Keep easy to eat protein sources on hand.

Non vegan options could could include hard boiled egg, shredded chicken breast, or an alternative if you hate chicken breast (I’m a basic bitch who happens to like chicken. Please forgive me. lol)

Vegan options might include tofu, lentils, beans, or the Beyond Meat brand products.

I think it’s important for me to emphasize that I am NOT telling you what to eat or how to eat. Nor am I telling you to eat like me! Diet is individual and my main advice is to go with easy + try to eat things when you enjoy. However, when i was ill, nibbling on shredded chicken breast ended up being my safest bet. Exciting? No, but when I was too sick to get off the couch, I wasn’t terribly concerned with the flavor profile of my food.

Ease back into activity + exercise

Laying low may be my worst nightmare psychologically, so let me tell you that as a fellow “over achiever” it’s really easy to eff your shit up when you jump too quickly back into exercise or movement after illness or injury.

Having made this mistake with dozens of injuries over the years, my main advice is to focus on what you CAN do and when it doubt, DO LESS.

For example, prior to getting sick, I was happily walking 6 miles a day.

Now that I’m feeling better, I desperately want to to jump back into the deep end, but these days I know better.

The firs day that I felt well enough and was medically cleared to walk, I tried 20 minutes on flat ground.

I did that again the next day too and when I still felt okay and didn’t experience an increase in symptoms, I bumped it to a 30 minute walk. Over the course of 2 weeks, I’ve worked my way up to 4 miles split up throughout the day. I still haven’t done it in one session, but starting next week I’ll try it.

This was appropriate for my specific illness. In the case of an injury or different illness, my progress may have been much slower and that would have been okay too! The point is to treat each experience with the nuance, patience, and critical thinking that it deserves.

It’s also worth noting that I had to take almost 3 weeks off from ANY formal exercise.

Starting next week. I’ll be allowed to strength train again, but it won’t be at the level that I was at prior to my medical procedure and getting sick. As I ease back in, my workouts will be on the lower side of moderate intensity at a lighter weight than I am used to. There will be no jumping or ballistic movements. My guess is that it’ll take me several weeks to ramp up intensity thoughtfully, so not to overload any of my tissues / joints that haven’t been used in that way for nearly a month.

I’m also not even going to touch a weight for another several days. When I do it’ll be a short 30 minute workout at an easy to moderate pace. Based on how that goes, I’ll decide how to proceed.

In this case, I am talking about illness, but what if you’re not sick, but injured? Then what do you do?

If your lower body is compromised, you may be able to:

  • Focus on core work
  • Get really good at upper body exercises that don’t require weight bearing on the injured area
  • Emphasize joint stability and mobility if more rigorous forms of exercise aren’t recommended at this point in your healing process.

The same goes for an upper body injury, where you may want to focus on lower body instead. My point is that in the case of injury, there’s typically things that we can’t or shouldn’t do (at least early on) an a menu of options for what is available to us.

Figure out what exercises, movements, or modalities are available to you, given your unique situation!

Once you’re allow to reload the injured area / return to regular exercise:

  • Start to thoughtfully reintroduce exercises and load bearing in that area with guidance from a physical therapist when needed.
  • Start with a regressed / modified version of the exercises you want to practice. Notice how it feels and gradually start to increase load and challenge.
  • Know that increased load can be really valuable for healing and returning to fitness. However, it takes time to increase tolerance and strength. Additionally, strength isn’t the only thing that is lost when you are injured. Often times, you will also lose body awareness / proprioception, which is why it’s important to think about restoring stability and mobility in that area as well as strength! You don’t need to fear movement, but be patient with yourself and you may find you get better a lot faster.

The point isn’t to avoid the things you were doing before forever. It’s just about thoughtfully re-introducing things and giving your body time to heal and adapt, so you see incremental progress without constantly feeling like it’s 2 step forward, one step back.

Finally, if you are struggling with how to reintroduce exercise after physical therapy, you may want to invest in private sessions with a teacher or trainer who specializes in post-rehab work that is related to the activities you enjoy. I realize that we don’t always have the funds to do this, but if it’s an option to pay for privates, they can be really valuable. Even if it is just for a limited time.

When in doubt, ask for help!

Summary

I realize that none of this is rocket science and when you’re sick or injured it can be really frustrating and demoralizing. I personally rely on exercise for mental health, so going slow is a genuine challenge for me.

However, these are all things that you have the power to control in a shitty situation where things feel largely out of your control, so I find harnessing power in those small ways can be empowering, even if it’s just making sure you tried to drink some water or you did your physical therapy exercises.

Also, remember that it’s about the long game.

When I was crawling the walls itching to walk before I was cleared to do anything, I kept reminding myself that I wanted to feel better FASTER and in this case it was going to require some patience. So water, protein, and veggies were where I put my focus. It was somewhat literally all I had for options.

I also got down on the ground and foam rolled, because it made my body feel a little less stiff after being glued to the bed for 10 days and frankly my shoulder felt like shit from not being able to strength train and being bedridden.

In any case, have grace for yourself. Your health and fitness are valuable as are you, but they don’t determine your worth.

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