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Physical activity and recovering from illness, injury or treatment

We all know that physical activity is great for our health. With a huge range of benefits, both mental and physical, its importance cannot be overstated.

What you may not know is that physical activity can be used to help boost your recovery if you've recently been ill, injured or undergone any form of treatment. If you've been put on a rehabilitation program or given some exercises to do by your doctor, our four step recovery program can tie in nicely once you have completed these, and feel ready to start some light exercise again.

Whether it's recovery from a seasonal flu-like illness, or managing a longer term condition, it's actually very important to ensure you're incorporating some light exercises into your day to help with your recovery.

The resources below should be suitable for everyone to follow sensibly, but if you are unsure about your level of mobility, be sure to contact your GP for advice before starting.

Why is it important to exercise when recovering?

When you're currently ill, or just beginning to recover, thinking about movement or exercise might be the last thing you feel like doing.

You need to rest to recuperate, but it's also important to make the effort to break up long spells of resting to stop your muscles from losing too much strength.

The process of physically weakening and losing muscle strength is called deconditioning, and it's something that happens naturally as we age. But a long illness when you lie down for a long time can bring on muscle deterioration more rapidly than you might think, which can leave you weaker and more vulnerable to injury after you've recovered.

Whether it's a seasonal cold or flu, or a rehabilitation period after surgery or other treatments, physios recommend making movement part of your day, little and often, to avoid deconditioning.

So what next? We've pulled together resources from trusted sources to guide you through some physical activities you can do to aid your recovery, no matter where you are in your recuperation.

What to do if I've recently been diagnosed with Coronavirus?

If you've recently contracted symptoms or been diagnosed with COVID-19 or any other winter illness, it's important to follow all government and medical advice to ensure your swift recovery, including their guidelines on your self isolation period. You can find loads of resources and the latest government advice on our Coronavirus resources page.

Ensure you self isolate as long as you've been advised to if you have contracted COVID-19, and do take it easy. Long term symptoms of Coronavirus include fatigue and shortness of breath so it's important you don't overdo it, and take frequent moments to assess just how you're feeling.

Once you feel well enough to do so, you can start checking out our resources and building up your strength little by little using our exercises in our Four Step Recovery Plan. These start from bed rest, so you can do some very light physical activity and begin your recovery, without having to get up just yet.

You could start by watching the video below by the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy which illustrates what physiotherapists say many patents can expect whilst recovering from COVID-19.

Woman recovering from surgery

What if I've just had treatment or surgery?

If you've recently undergone a treatment program, or had surgery, it's important to follow any medical advice you've been given to ensure a swift recovery. Your GP should be able to advise you on how long it will take to return to normal, however once you feel able to, you can begin following our light exercise regime, and checking out the rehabilitation resources available.

You should only do as much as you feel able to following your operation or treatment. It is common to feel very tired, and other symptoms such as nausea and pain may accompany your fatigue. With this said, it's important to try and begin moving again as soon as possible. Not only will this reduce your risk of deconditioning, but can prevent other complications such as blood clots, weight gain and further illness.

What post-surgery resources are available?

The NHS has some useful resources on getting back to normal after an operation which provides information and advice about recovering from specific procedures. You can also check whether there's a leaflet containing information on recovering from a specific surgical procedure.

Can this be done as well as rehabilitation programs?

Before undertaking anything new, you should try to fully complete any advised rehabilitation programs your doctor has recommended. These have been designed by medical professionals and will be the best aid for your recovery.

Examples include:

Your doctor should be able to recommend tailored rehabilitation plans for you upon completion of your treatment. Once your rehab program is complete, you can undertake the four step programme below to keep active and build up your strength.

Top tips on boosting your recovery

The Four Step Recovery Plan

Whether you're recovering from a recent illness, injury or treatment, it's important to move around as much as possible (little and often!) to keep physically active and speed up your recovery.

With this in mind, we've listed a four-step recovery plan, which will help you to build up your strength. These are suitable for all ages and abilities, and are gentle enough that they should not be too strenuous. If at any stage you feel fatigued or overworked, stop and let your body rest, and try again the next day.

Step one: Still in bed, very weak

This is a crucial time to take it steady and ensure you don't overdo it. Your body needs rest to recover, but there are movements you can do from your bed to keep up your strength and flexibility.

Moving Medicine has created a great workbook to outline gentle exercises and stretches you can do from your bed, including pictures and top tips.

Step two: Moved to the sofa, still low energy

Once you feel well enough to move around the house a little, this is a great sign. Moving on from the Bed Exercises, this Moving Medicine exercise programme takes you a little further to include stamina, flexibility and strength exercises.

Step three: Ready for a structured programme

As your energy starts to return, you can introduce a more structured regime into your day. This can be a 10-15 minute session per day, ensuring you listen to your body and take it easy if you begin to feel unwell or fatigued.

We've worked with EPIC to create a series of exercise videos that are structured to help you maintain strength, balance and flexibility so you reduce your risk of having a fall, and these types of exercises will work well in aiding your recovery..

There are three levels, starting with seated exercises and working up to standing exercises.

Click here to watch our fall prevention videos.

Step four: Ready for more

This is the stage at which you're hopefully beginning to feel a little better, and ready for activity.

Once you're feeling a bit stronger and want to keep it up or progress, there are lots more resources to try within our Active at Home hub. There are activities for all abilities, and all of them can be tailored so they can be seated if required.

Try mixing it up to keep yourself motivated. Why not try Yoga, Bollywood dance, or follow along on our Workout of the Week to try something new each week.

Can deconditioning happen naturally?

Deconditioning doesn't only happen when you're ill or recovering. It can also happen if your lifestyle suddenly changes, and you become more sedentary.

This can be a natural risk that comes with age. As we get older, it can feel a little harder to remain active or maintain the same level of activity. For this reason, the four step program above is excellent for adding some light exercise into your day. You can also check out our Falls Prevention programme to help improve your strength and balance along with our page of exercises for more vulnerable people.

But older people aren't the only ones at risk. Deconditioning can happen to anyone, even if you lead a relatively healthy lifestyle. It has become a larger risk since the pandemic began, as more of us are working from home and missing out on our daily commute, and regular social activities. With this in mind, it's important to keep moving and find new ways to remain active wherever possible.

If you need inspiration on where to go outdoors, check out our Active Outdoors page, where we've listed links to lots of resources where you can exercise safely outdoors. If you'd rather stay active from home, our Active at Home page has lots of resources to keep you moving from your living room.