What to Do When Working Out Isn’t an Option, According to the Pros

The first thing I do every single morning, seven days a week, is lace up my sneakers and head to my workout. I need to start my day with some sweat for the sake of my mental health, productivity, and general well-being. Even if I don’t have time to do a full hour on the spin bike or at the barre, I’ll take myself for a 10-minute run around the block to get my heart rate going and clear my head.

But when a recent medical scare laid me out for a full week—which may not sound like much, but to me, it was an eternity—I was lost. Without my usual movement, I couldn’t figure out how to find my center, and quite simply, I just didn't feel like myself. I know I'm not alone. A colleague who was also recently sidelined with an injury commiserated, and countless Instagram followers told me they could seriously feel my pain. Seeking sweat-fueled sanity, I decided to consult the experts to see if there was anything I could do to keep body and mind happy during this time.

"It’s an individualized question of what makes you feel relaxed or what makes you feel calm,” says Hillary Cauthen, PsyD, CMPC, an Association for Applied Sport Psychology representative told me when I begged for her advice. “For some people, that might be doing moderate exercise like yoga or stretching, even if they’re not able to do full physical exercise.” For others, meditating and deep breathing can be a nice replacement when exercise isn't an option. Also helpful? Journaling, listening to music, baking, or anything else that makes you feel chilled out and in the zone.

Or in short, you just need to find something that boosts endorphins the same way exercise does. According to a quick Google search, things like laughing, eating chocolate, or having sex are alternatives when working out just won't work out. For Busy Phillips, an “off” day involves taking a hot bath, while for Kayla Itsines, it means popping in some headphones and walking around the block. Really, it's all about finding what works for you.

"I think also, beyond the natural endorphin rush, it’s the mindset that we believe that exercise will make us feel better,” says Cauthen. "And so the hard part is finding activities [besides exercise] that you believe will make you happy. So for example, sitting down with your family outside in the nature and enjoying just being there. When we believe in that, the power of our mind is really impactful to make us feel better as well.”

While these tips are admittedly helpful on the mental front, there’s also the pesky aspect of the physical repercussions associated with taking significant time away from your regular routine. I, for one, was absolutely terrified that after a week off, I’d have to start back at zero with the two-minute plank I’d been working on for the past three months. "I think that’s the hardest part. Athletes often feel like 'I’m going to lose everything,' but there are a lot of questions you can ask that keep you staying mentally in that sport or that exercise,” says Cauthen. One way to do it? Imagine yourself doing the exercise. “There’s a neuromuscular process that can occur when you’re visualizing yourself doing those movements and staying connected,” she explains.

Even if you aren't quite in marathon shape, doing something as simple as going for a walk can actually really help. "Movement in any form, even if it has to be in moderation, is good in general for you—it circulates your blood flow and your oxygen, and makes you feel like you’re doing something," says Cauthen. "And so if we’re able to do walking or light biking or yoga, it’s still helpful for your body to use that movement so you’ll still get those endorphins that you’re craving."

As frustrating as it may be, keep in mind that there is actually major value in giving your body time to recover. "Realize that this is just a temporary process, and that your bodies will heal—and probably heal faster— when you listen and take the time,” says Cauthen. “So that when you do come back to regular exercise, you’ll probably be stronger and be able to gain that muscular atrophy that was lost.”

So embrace your off days and treat yourself to some chocolate and a bath so that when it is time go back to regularly scheduled programming, your body is good and ready.

When you are ready to get back to the gym, these are the best exercises for mental health. And here's why it's worth finding workouts that spark joy, a la Marie Kondo. 

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