Pain free exercise

Sore back, aching feet, creaky knees? What a pain in the neck! But don’t hang up your sneakers – keep moving with the best exercises to work around pain.
Published 4 November 2015

Exercises for areas of the body in pain

Shuffling downstairs the day after a gruelling workout is one thing – you know it’ll pass. But when you’ve got a bung knee or a bad back, dodging the gym can seem far more tempting. Every year about a million Australians get put out of action due to a sports injury, according to Monash University, and many of those don’t start exercising again for some time. But is taking a break really so bad? Apparently so. “Physical activity is critically important, and it’s vital to do as much as you can, irrespective of symptoms of injury,” says National President of the Australian Physiotherapy Association, Dr Marcus Dripps.

In fact, it’s probably the best thing you can do to put yourself back on the road to recovery. “There’s an increasing amount of evidence that physical activity helps musculoskeletal conditions,” says Dr Dripps. The key is to exercise with caution, exercise physiologist Vanessa Rice warns: “An important aspect of the injury is allowing the affected area to recover and rehabilitate.” But giving your injured body part a break doesn’t mean the rest of your body can have a holiday! So whether you have pain in the back, legs or ankles, we show you how to keep moving.

Pain in the...legs

One of the most common leg injuries is shin splints. “These are a shock absorbing injury, which means the connective tissue where the small muscles in your lower leg join onto the bone are being overloaded,” says Dr Dripps. “A few things contribute to that load, the obvious one being body weight, but it could also be your running style, the sports shoes you’re wearing and the amount of running or walking you’re doing.”

Best exercises

  • Swimming or cycling. Because shin splints are often caused by doing too much exercise too soon – usually running – cut down and do something with a lower impact, such as swimming or cycling, at a low gear.
  • Stretching and strengthening. Working the tendons and muscles along your shin can help, too. Lie on your back and loop an exercise band around your foot. Then move your foot up and down and side to side. When you’ve recovered, build up your running or walking gradually, says Dr Dripps. “We normally suggest new exercisers start with a low-to-moderate intensity 20-minute walk three or four times a week and don’t progress too much for the first two or three weeks. Once your body’s telling you it’s comfortable, then start to progress.”

Pain in the...back

How to cure this particular misery is currently baffling researchers. “At the moment there’s no definitive research on how to best treat back pain,” says Rice. “But we do know that lying around doing nothing doesn’t help.” Your first stop should be booking an appointment with your GP to rule out the risk of something serious that needs specialist care, such as a herniated disc. Next, start moving.

Best exercises

  • Walking. It’s an oldie but a goodie, and Dr Dripps and Rice both agree that walking is one of the best things for back pain – it’s low impact, and you can take it at your own pace.
  • Swimming. “Swimming is good for your back because you need to use your core muscles to stay horizontal in the water,” says Rice. “And if you can’t swim, walking in water is also great for your back.”
  • Pilates. This type of exercise works deep into your core muscles. “People with back pain should consider strengthening their core to assist with recovery and rehabilitation,” says Rice.

Pain in the...ankle

Sprains are pretty common, but when you’re hobbling around, obviously you can’t stick to your usual exercise routine. Try these ideas.

Best exercises

  • Arm weights and push-ups on your knees. There are a surprising number of things you can do while your ankle’s strapped up. Rice suggests strength training that involves the upper body only, as you rest the pain site.
  • Swimming. “You can swim, which obviously works your arms, but to ease the load on the ankle, try minimal to no leg kicking,” says Rice.

Pain in the...arm

The most common arm pain is tennis elbow – but you don’t have to be Sam Stosur to suffer. It’s an overuse injury that can be caused by many sports, including rowing, hockey or weightlifting, and jobs with repetitive activities – like clicking a computer mouse.

Best exercises

  • Running, swimming or cycling. Anything that doesn’t involve your injured arm is a good option. “You should be able to run, swim or cycle on an exercise bike,” says Rice.
  • Weight training. “Working the uninjured side should be fine,” says Rice. As for your injured arm, she recommends gentle stretching of the forearm muscles – but nothing that causes any extra pain. Try this simple stretch: lift your right arm and flex your hand as if you’re signalling to ‘stop’. Use your left hand to gently pull back the fingers of your right hand. Hold for 30 seconds, then release and swap sides.

Pain in the...knees

Women can thank their child-bearing hips for this common injury point – the more extreme angle between the hips and knees means female kneecaps are more likely to fall out of alignment. But putting your feet up isn’t a good idea. “Knee osteoarthritis or miscellaneous knee pains are mainly managed by a physical-activity program,” says Dr Dripps. “The main thing is to strengthen the muscles supporting the knee joint, particularly the inner part of your quadriceps, and the muscles around your hip joint.”

Best exercises

  • Squats and lunges. “We suggest weight-bearing exercises where you’re standing up,” says Dr Dripps. “Squats and lunges are very functional for people with knee problems.” For good form, stand up straight and keep your eyes forward – looking down can make your shoulders hunch. Stabilise your pelvis by holding your abs tight and keep your knees over your toes.