Resting and offloading after a physical injury or illness may seem like the most logical approach to promote healing. In some cases, this may be enough to relieve pain and restore function. But in others, it may have negative consequences. Decreased tissue elasticity and potential muscle atrophy are some of these pitfalls.
Exercise rehabilitation is a middle-ground solution to this problem. It involves engaging in specific exercises designed to restore and enhance components of physical fitness. The goal can be to regain or improve one’s physical ability and quality of life.
Done under the supervision of a healthcare professional, exercise rehabilitation optimizes recovery and even may prevent future injuries.
Here’s what you need to know about exercise rehabilitation and why it could be a game-changer in your healing journey.
What Is a Rehabilitation Exercise?
A rehabilitation exercise is a structured and progressive physical activity program that aims to restore function, improve strength and flexibility, and promote overall well-being after an injury or illness (6).
It can include a variety of exercises such as cardiovascular activities, resistance training, stretching, and balance exercises. The specific exercises prescribed will depend on the individual’s condition, abilities, and goals.
The principles of exercise rehabilitation are as follows:
1. Physical Stress Theory
Tissues adapt to changes in the level of stress applied.
High stress can cause injury, while low stress can lead to atrophy (8).
Exposing tissues to appropriate levels of stress strengthens them and improves their ability to tolerate load.
In rehabilitation, the right amount and type of stress are applied to promote healing and prevent further damage.
2. Cellular Repair Theory
Physical stress causes microscopic damage to tissues. The body responds to this by repairing and adapting these tissues to withstand future stress.
This process is known as cellular repair or remodeling.
In rehabilitation, exercises are prescribed in a way that promotes this repair process, resulting in strong and resilient tissues.
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3. Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands (SAID) Principle
The SAID principle states that the body will specifically adapt to the type of stress imposed on it (9).
In rehabilitation, exercises are chosen to mimic or simulate the demands placed on the injured area in daily life activities.
For example, if a person is rehabilitating from a knee injury, exercises that involve utilization of the specific structures in and surrounding the knee joint that bear weight and must be active and stable for daily activities will be prescribed to improve their ability to perform activities such as walking, climbing stairs, and squatting.
4. Progressive Overload Principle
The exercise program should be tailored to the individual’s current abilities and gradually increase in intensity as they progress. This gradual progression challenges the body to adapt and improve without causing further injury (j).
5. Mobility and Stability
It is crucial to maintain mobility while stabilizing an injured tissue. For example, rehabilitation exercises for knee injuries should not only focus on strengthening the muscles around the knee joint but also improving its range of motion.
If not, compensatory movement patterns may occur. These compensatory patterns can lead to rigidity and antalgic movements, often as a response to pain or fear of movement (kinesiophobia).
Techniques for desensitization can help overcome fear of movement and enhance motor control.
In short – the focus isn’t only on strengthening the injured area, but also on optimizing overall movement patterns to promote full recovery.
Every person’s injury or illness is unique, and their rehabilitation program should be tailored to their specific needs.
This includes taking into account factors such as age, overall health, previous injuries, and personal goals. An individualized approach ensures that the exercise program effectively addresses the person’s specific limitations and promotes optimal recovery.
7. Biopsychosocial Model
Injury or illness can have not just physical but also psychological and social impacts.
Exercise rehabilitation addresses these aspects through a holistic approach, including addressing the cognitive and social impacts imparted on the individual.
What Are the Purposes of Rehabilitation Exercises?
Rehabilitation exercises are necessary for promoting healing and restoring function after an injury or illness. However, they also can serve other purposes which can significantly impact one’s life. Here are some advantages of exercise rehabilitation:
Pain is a common symptom associated with injuries and illnesses, and exercise rehabilitation can help reduce it in multiple ways.
- Physical activity triggers the release of endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers (3).
- Specific exercises can promote tissue healing and reduce inflammation, which can alleviate pain (5).
- Improving overall physical fitness can help individuals better manage chronic pain conditions (4).
In our blog – How Can Stiff and Tight Muscles Result In Back Pain, we describe how exercise rehabilitation can be beneficial for pain management.
Rehabilitation exercises aim to restore and enhance one’s ability to perform daily activities. This includes not just basic tasks like walking or dressing oneself, but also more complex activities like playing sports or performing work-related tasks.
Improved function can significantly improve one’s quality of life and independence.
Prevention of Future Injuries
Engaging in exercise rehabilitation after an injury can prevent future injuries by (2):
- Strengthening muscles, ligaments, and tendons to better support the body during physical activity.
- Improving balance and coordination to reduce the risk of falls.
- Enhancing overall physical fitness can make the body more resilient and less susceptible to injury.
Exercise has been shown to have numerous psychological benefits, including (7):
- Reducing stress and anxiety.
- Improving mood and self-esteem.
- Promoting better sleep.
In rehabilitation, these benefits can help individuals cope with the physical and emotional challenges of recovery.
Rehabilitation exercises promote overall well-being by improving physical health, function, and mental well-being. This holistic approach to healing ensures that individuals can not only recover from their injury or illness but also thrive in all aspects of their life.
Types of Rehabilitation Exercises
There are various types of rehabilitation exercises, including:
- Range of motion exercises: These exercises aim to improve the flexibility and mobility of joints, muscles, and the surrounding tissues.
- Strengthening exercises: These exercises target specific muscles, tendons, and ligaments to increase their strength and endurance.
- Functional or movement-based exercises: These exercises focus on improving one’s ability to perform daily activities such as squatting, lifting objects, and walking on uneven surfaces.
- Balance and coordination exercises: These exercises aim to improve one’s balance and coordination, which are crucial for preventing falls and maintaining overall stability.
- Cardiovascular exercises: These exercises focus on improving heart health and overall physical fitness through activities such as walking, cycling, and swimming.
- Passive range of motion exercises: In a passive range of motion exercises, a therapist or machine moves the body part through full or part of its range of motion without the individual actively using their muscles. This helps maintain joint mobility and flexibility in individuals unable to perform active exercises, often in the early stages of rehabilitation.
- Neuromuscular re-education exercises: These exercises aim to improve motor control and coordination in individuals with neurological conditions or injuries.
- Manual therapy techniques: These are hands-on techniques performed by a therapist to improve joint mobility, reduce pain, and promote tissue healing.
When Should You Do Rehab Exercises?
You should consider rehab exercises if you have an injury or illness that affects your physical function and mobility.
Rehab exercises can also be beneficial for:
- Preventing injuries in individuals with physically demanding jobs or sports.
- Recovering from surgery to restore function and promote healing of the operated area.
- Managing chronic conditions that impact physical function.
- Maintaining physical function and independence in older adults.
- Improving overall physical fitness and well-being.
Don’t attempt physiotherapy rehabilitation exercises at home, unless you’ve gotten the green light from your healthcare provider.
You should also avoid exercising when you’re experiencing severe pain or are undergoing significant medical treatment.
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How Can I Rehabilitate My Body?
You can start rehabilitating your body by consulting with your healthcare provider or a qualified exercise rehabilitation specialist. They can assess your condition and develop an individualized exercise program that addresses your specific limitations and promotes optimal recovery.
In addition to exercises, you may also receive other types of therapy such as heat or cold application, massage, or electrical stimulation. Your therapist may also guide lifestyle modifications, such as proper nutrition and posture, to support your rehabilitation journey.
With the go-ahead from your healthcare provider, you can also start incorporating exercise into your daily routine.
Here are some physiotherapy exercises you can try at home:
This exercise promotes flexibility in the lower back and hips.
- Lie on your back with your legs straight.
- Bend one knee and bring it towards your chest, using both hands to pull the knee closer if needed.
- Hold for 20-30 seconds, then release.
- Repeat with the other leg.
- Aim for 3-5 repetitions on each side.
This exercise helps improve flexibility in the back of the thighs and buttocks.
- Lie on your back with your legs straight.
- Lift one leg off the ground and hold it behind your thigh with both hands while keeping your leg straight.
- Gently pull towards your chest until you feel a stretch along the back of your leg.
- Hold for 20-30 seconds, then release.
- Repeat with the other leg.
- Aim for 3-5 repetitions on each side.
Wall Slide Squats
This exercise helps improve lower body strength and stability.
- Stand with your back against a wall, feet shoulder-width apart.
- Slowly slide down the wall into a squat position, keeping your knees in line with your toes.
- Hold for 5-10 seconds, then push back up to standing.
- Aim for 10-15 repetitions.
Seated Leg Lifts
This exercise targets the lower abdominal and hip muscles.
- Sit on a chair with your feet flat on the ground.
- Slowly lift one leg off the ground, keeping it straight.
- Hold for 5-10 seconds, then lower your leg back down.
- Aim for 10-15 repetitions on each side.
Safety Tips for Rehab Exercises
It’s important to practice rehab exercises safely. Here are some tips to keep in mind:
- Always warm up before starting your exercises to prepare your muscles and joints (1). Dynamic warmups are most effective and supported by the research. You can keep this simple with 5-10 minutes of light total body movement including walking, jogging, stationary biking, stair stepper, dynamic stretching, or any other activity that gradually brings up your heart rate.
- Listen to your body and don’t push yourself past your limits. If an exercise causes sharp or nagging pain or discomfort, stop immediately and consult with your healthcare provider.
- Gradually increase the intensity and duration of exercises as your body becomes stronger and more flexible.
- Use proper form when performing exercises to avoid injury. If needed, consult with a physical therapist for guidance on proper technique.
- Stay well-hydrated and take breaks as needed during exercise sessions.
By following these tips and incorporating rehab exercises into your routine, you can support your body’s healing and recovery process.
How Long Does Exercise Rehabilitation Take To Work?
Exercise rehab can take anywhere from a few weeks to several months, depending on the severity of your condition and how consistently you perform the exercises. It’s important to follow your exercise program as prescribed by your healthcare provider.
What Are The 4 Goals of Rehabilitation?
The 4 goals of rehabilitation include:
- Restoration of physical function and mobility.
- Pain management.
- Prevention of future injuries or complications.
- Improvement in overall quality of life.
Each individual’s goals will vary depending on their specific condition and needs.
What Does Rehabilitation Involve?
Rehabilitation involves a variety of approaches, such as exercise, manual therapy techniques, and lifestyle modifications. These may be performed under the guidance of a healthcare provider or on your own at home.
The specific approach used will depend on your condition and individual needs.
What Are Common Types of Injuries That Require Rehabilitation?
There are countless types of injury and impairment that may benefit from physical therapy or other professional physical rehabilitation. Some of the most common injuries that may benefit from rehabilitation include muscle strains and sprains, joint injuries, fractures, and post-surgical recovery. It can also be helpful for chronic conditions such as arthritis and neurological disorders that affect physical function.
What Are Some Signs That You May Need Rehabilitation?
Signs that you may benefit from rehabilitation can include difficulty performing daily activities, pain or discomfort with movement, and limited range of motion.
If you have sustained an injury or are experiencing any physical limitations, it is always best to consult with a healthcare provider to determine if rehabilitation may be helpful for your specific needs.
The Bottom Line
Rehabilitation exercises are an essential component of healing and promoting function after an injury or illness. They serve multiple purposes, including pain reduction, improved function, prevention of future injuries, and overall well-being.
Through an individualized and holistic approach, rehabilitation exercises can help individuals recover from their injury or illness and thrive in all aspects of their life.
This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
- Aerobic exercise: How to warm up and cool down (2023, mayoclinic.org)
- Current Concepts in Sports Injury Rehabilitation (2017, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Endorphins: The brain’s natural pain reliever (2021, health.harvard.edu)
- Exercise Therapy for Fibromyalgia | Current Pain and Headache Reports (2011, link.springer.com)
- Physical activity and exercise for chronic pain in adults: an overview of Cochrane Reviews (2017, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Principles of Exercise Rehabilitation – Physiopedia (n.d., physio-pedia.com)
- Role of Physical Activity on Mental Health and Well-Being: A Review (2023, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Tissue Adaptation to Physical Stress: A Proposed “Physical Stress Theory” to Guide Physical Therapist Practice, Education, and Research (2002, academic.oup.com)
- Top 6 Training Principles (2022, iascfitness.org)