11 Ways to Stay Active When You’re in a Cast

Staying active while in a cast can be challenging.

Finding ways to remain physically active can be a challenge for people who suffer from serious injuries and find their movement temporarily restricted because they have to wear a cast on any part of the body after an injury, such as a broken bone.

Dr. Daniel Gittings, a hand and wrist specialist and orthopedic surgeon at Hoag Orthopedic Institute in Southern California says that casts are typically “placed to immobilize bones and joints that need to be protected to promote bone healing.”

Not all injuries require a cast.

“There are multiple types of injures that require casting,” says Dr. Bryan Brown, an orthopedic surgeon specializing in upper extremities at the Orlando Health Jewett Orthopedic Institute in Florida. “A classic case is a broken bone.”

Depending on the bone and how it’s been broken, you may need a cast for several weeks or even months. In other cases, like a broken a toe, you may not need a cast at all. But anytime you’ve broken a bone you should seek medical care to limit complications and to speed appropriate healing.

How a cast helps you heal.

The whole point of a cast is to limit unhelpful movement and protect the affected area, which can make keeping up with your daily exercise routine challenging. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to sit out for the duration of the time you’re in a cast.

In fact, staying active can help you feel better as you heal, both mentally and physically, says Susan Esposito, a physical therapist and senior director of quality assurance at Fox Rehabilitation, a medical group based in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. If you’re used to being active, “your mind will crave exercise, and it will still want endorphins released by physical activity, which promote a sense of well-being,” she says.

Brown adds that “if you’re in a cast or splint for too long, the joints can get really stiff and the muscle will atrophy around those joints that are not being used for four or six weeks or however long. That’s why we try to balance immobilizing the injury enough to heal, but not too much so that it’s going to have negative consequences that you can’t recover from in the future.”

Modifications are key to staying active.

Esposito notes that to meet your movement needs, you’ll have to figure out some alternative exercises. For example, if you’re recovering from an injury, you may not be able to use your arms or legs as usual to run or compete on the basketball or tennis court. “But there’s many things you can do. It’s important to stay active to keep your muscles engaged and to maintain strength in your core,” she adds.

If you’ve been sidelined by an injury that requires a cast to heal, try these 11 tips for staying active safely.

1. Get your doctor or physical therapist’s opinion.

Before you launch your own revised workout routine, ask your physician or physical therapist what kinds of exercises are safe, says Anne Biala, director of corporate compliance at Athletico Physical Therapy in the Chicago area. “First and foremost, with any injury, consult with your physician” or physical therapist if you’re undergoing such treatment.

Your doctor and/or physical therapist can help you understand the extent of your physical limitations and what activities you can safely do, she says. You can increase your level of activity as you recover, but you should do so with the guidance of your medical team.

Gittings adds that while “being active is part of a healthy lifestyle, being too active too early after an injury may disrupt or delay healing without the appropriate guidance from your doctor.”

2. Reset your goals and expectations.

If you revel in being physically active, taking time off from your favorite sport or exercise can be a real downer, Biala says. Accept that you won’t be able to engage in it for a while, and keep in mind the situation is temporary, she says.

Recalibrate your fitness goals, and focus on incremental progress. “Instead of aiming to lose weight in two months, set a goal of maintaining your weight during that time,” she says. “Focus on small victories, like weaning yourself off crutches or a cane.” Set and advance your goals weekly.

3. Consider yoga.

Practicing yoga can help with pain management, says Steffany Moonaz, a certified yoga therapist and chair of integrative health research at Maryland University of Integrative Health. Breathing exercises and relaxation practices can alter pain processing, while the mindfulness of yoga can help you be more aware of pain and what exacerbates or alleviates it, she says.

While not every type of yoga would be appropriate for someone who’s wearing a cast on his or her foot or arm, there are alternatives. For example, chair yoga, which helps some arthritis sufferers manage their pain, could be an option. Some chair classes use the chair as a prop, while others are entirely seated. Contact the teacher or facility in advance to find out whether the class would be appropriate given your specific limitations.

There are even yoga practices that can be done lying in bed or in a pool to help maintain mobility and reduce stiffness without weight-bearing, Moonaz says. A yoga therapist can develop a specialized plan for you, in collaboration with your other care providers. As a general rule, maintain a focus on the joints above and below the cast.

4. Exercise while sitting or lying down.

Doing exercises while seated can be a good option if you’re recovering from a serious foot, ankle, knee or leg injury and can’t put any or much weight on your foot, Biala says. Such exercises can help you keep your upper body strong during your recovery period.

For example, you can sit at home or in the gym and lift small handheld weights. You can also work out your legs while lying down in a supine position, Biala says. For instance, try leg lifts while lying on your back or on your side.

Using a hand bike is another option, Esposito says. You can place this device, which resembles the pedals of a bicycle, on a table and use the pedals to exercise your arms, which helps keep them toned and strong. Also, many gyms have machines known as ergometers, which allow you to use levers or pedals while sitting or standing to work out your upper body.

5. Try using resistance bands.

Resistance bands can be a helpful exercise tool if you have to stay off your feet, Esposito says. These resemble large, thin rubber bands, and they can be used in a variety of ways. They are inexpensive and come in varying degrees of resistance to meet your needs. They are often available online in packs of 5 for less than $25.

For example, while sitting or standing, you could wrap a resistance band around a doorknob and pull both ends back in a rowing motion, she says. Your physical therapist can provide resistance bands and show you how to use them.

Depending on the extent of your injury, you might also use a stationary bicycle or an elliptical machine to get in a cardio workout, Esposito suggests.

6. Try isometric exercises.

Isometric exercises are another option, says Dr. Luga Podesta, a director of regenerative orthopedics and sports medicine at the Bluetail Medical Group-Naples in Florida.

While sitting, for instance, you can straighten your leg in the air and hold it for 15 to 20 seconds, which helps maintain muscle tone. “Repeat the exercise several times a day,” Podesta says. “This can help maintain muscle tone and prevent muscle atrophy.”

7. Use gym equipment.

These can also be called “closed-circuit” machines by your medical professional. If your injury is in the upper body, gym equipment that focuses on the lower body may well be fair game. Provided you can maintain your balance, walking and working out on a treadmill or elliptical machine are all good options that shouldn’t put your injured arm at risk, says Nick Peppes, a physical therapist at Atlantic Health System’s Atlantic Sports Health, based in Morristown, New Jersey. You could also try a spin class, which provides an intense cycling workout.

8. Go for a walk.

Gittings notes that “upper extremity injuries can make routine activities such as grooming, eating, work and school challenging,” but being careful to take the right precautions is very important to healing with the best possible outcomes.

He recommends asking your doctor about which lower body exercises you can safely do, and says these often include low-intensity cardio exercises that focus on the lower body such as walking or recumbent bicycle or strength training with squats or lunges using only your body weight.

9. Give aquatic exercises a try.

Depending on the severity of your injury and whether you can take your cast off or if it’s waterproof, swimming could be a good option, Esposito says. Many physicians offer waterproof cast or there are special plastic wraps available to make cast waterproof.

Brown says waterproof casts are far more common today than they used to be, and swimming can be a great way to keep in shape while healing. “It depends on the specific injury, but if it’s just a simple forearm fracture, you can put a little resistance on it from water pressure as long as the cast stays in the same spot,” he says.

If you can’t swim, you could still get into the pool and do an array of exercises, such as water walking or doing leg raises.

10. Stretch.

Stay limber as much as possible. For example, if your cast stops below your elbow, stretch your arms above your head, hold the pose for five seconds and bring it down; repeat the motion four more times. This could help maintain muscle tone and prevent swelling and stiffness, Podesta says. Consistent stretching during your casting period (typically 4-6 weeks) can aid tremendously in your recovery time once the cast is removed.

11. Keep an open mind.

If you’re struggling, seek support from your family and friends as you recover. It is not uncommon for patients with a major orthopedic injury to go through a form of depression at some point in their healing/recovery period. Gittings also recommends focusing on long-term goals and “investing in your recovery. Sometimes, this period of recovery and activity modification can lead to a new hobby or passion you would not have otherwise explored.”

11 strategies for staying active with a cast:

1. Get your doctor or physical therapist’s opinion.

2. Reset your goals and expectations.

3. Consider yoga.

4. Exercise while sitting or lying down.

5. Try using resistance bands.

6. Try isometric exercises.

7. Use gym equipment.

8. Go for a walk.

9. Give aquatic exercises a try.

10. Remember to stretch.

11. Keep an open mind.

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11 Ways to Stay Active When You’re in a Cast originally appeared on usnews.com

Update 03/10/22: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.

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