When You Can’t Workout: The Lost Art of Taking a Break

We’ve all been there: forced to take a break from a favorite activity. Maybe the issue is an overuse injury, bedrest during a high-risk pregnancy, hazardous wildfire smoke, or a drier-than-desired winter that’s keeping you off the ski slopes. It’s easy to get down in the dumps when you can’t do what you love. The good news is that with the right perspective, a forced change in plans can help you discover new activities and take better care of yourself. Below are some ways to cope with an undesired break—and maybe even find some happiness along the way.

Try Something New

If summer wildfires make kayaking, biking, or running off limits, try something indoors that you typically neglect, like yoga, barre, or strength-training. You’ll challenge different muscle groups, increase flexibility and balance, and leave feeling better than before you started. You might even discover a new passion. “I’ve had a patient who was devastated after suffering an ACL rupture at Hoopfest, but which later led to a love of running and turned him into a competitive ultrarunner!” says physical therapist Jonathan Hook of Physical Therapy Associates and PTA Performance. Without the forced rest, “he would still be pounding it out on the court instead of hitting the trails.”


Jam-packed schedules mean there just aren’t enough hours in the day. Often, a good night’s sleep is the first to give. If an injury means you can’t get in your typical early-morning swim or round of golf, use that time for something novel: sleeping in. See how you feel on a full eight hours (for once!). Rest, notes Hook, is an essential part of fitness. “Stress plus rest equals growth,” he says, citing research from the book Peak Performance by Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness. On its own, stressing the body leads to ineffective workouts and can contribute to overuse injuries. “I love using this equation to encourage the individuals who are ‘forced’ to rest for one reason or another and help change their perspective to see it more as ‘recovery,’” says Hook.

Occupy Your Mind

When your body must be still, keep your brain active. Dive deep into a big book of Sudoku puzzles, take up cross-stitching, start writing your great American novel, or download a meditation app (Headspace is a good one). Keeping your mind active—or, in the case of meditation, learning to quiet it—will help you keep a positive outlook on this whole “workout break” thing.

Focus on Something You Can Control: Your Nutrition

When intense workouts are off the table, channel some of your usual mental drive onto eating well. Challenge yourself to get in a rainbow’s worth of fruits and veggies every day, drink lots of water, cut back on sugar, and slow down enough to notice how all of that makes you feel, adjusting as you go. Chances are, you’ll feel a little better than if you deep-freeze each day’s sorrows in a pint of ice cream (although you should probably do that every once in a while, too).

Invest in Relationships

Meet a friend for a leisurely walk or some gentle stretching in the park instead of your usual run. If you’re on bed rest, invite a friend over to binge-watch a funny show. Listen to your pal’s words of encouragement, distract yourself with good conversation, and think about how great it feels to laugh. It won’t magically cure your body, but time with a good friend never hurts.

Learn from Your Past

If you’re getting over an injury, take the time to think about the probable cause. Are you dealing with an overuse injury that could have been avoided if you’d addressed muscle imbalances and taken more time off? How can you plan your workouts going forward to have an overall healthier body?

Don’t Be Too Hard on Yourself

Don’t push yourself before you’re ready. Wait until conditions are right before you get back out there. Remember: This—whether this means smoky skies, a fracture, or a pregnancy—won’t last forever. “We know that outlook is huge,” says Hook. “Fear or anxiety of not healing can influence the body’s ability to repair.” These, he adds, are “great principles to remember to both encourage rest, and fully embrace it when we are forced to do so.” What you’re able to do may be (way) less strenuous than usual, but that doesn’t mean it’s not good for you. Look for the upsides. //


Sarah Hauge lives in Spokane with her husband and two daughters, and will be running the Happy Girls Half Marathon in September. She contributed to the “Backcountry Pursuits” feature in the August issue.  


[Feature photo: Resting can do wonders for a workout routine // Shallan Knowles]

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