Cardio Exercises with Leg Injury

Laura Williams, M.S.Ed.
arm cycle

If you've been sidelined with a leg injury, you may feel frustrated and stir crazy if you can't keep up your normal cardio routine. The good thing is, you don't have to give up cardio altogether - you can find cardiovascular exercises that will help you maintain your fitness despite your leg injury.

First Things First

If you're injured to the point of altered mobility or immobility, make sure you talk to your doctor to determine how serious your injury is. In some cases, she may order complete lower-body rest, while in other cases she may suggest exercise that helps maintain your leg's range of motion. These factors will play into which types of cardio you can perform while dealing with a leg injury. Always make sure you clear an exercise plan with your doctor before working out on an injured extremity.

Optional Cardio Exercises to Try

When choosing which cardio exercises to perform while not further aggravating a leg injury, you need to either opt for an upper body-only routine, or a routine that targets your legs, but without significant impact or stress. Consider the following options:

Arm Ergometer

The arm ergometer, or arm cycle, acts just like a bicycle, but it works the arms instead of the legs. You sit on the equipment's provided seat, or in your wheelchair, and cycle your arms in front of your chest. You'll discover that this exercise quickly gets your heart pumping, and you probably won't be able to cycle for longer than 10 or 20 minutes the first couple times out. This is because most people haven't developed upper body muscular endurance, and the arm muscles are smaller and aren't as strong as the muscles of the legs, hips and butt.

Most gyms and fitness centers offer arm cycles because it enables them to comply with ADA requirements for accessibility. You may even discover that a gym in your area offers a Krankcycle class - a group exercise class designed around upper body arm ergometers.

Lap Swimming

Your doctor may approve lap swimming as an exercise option because the water's buoyancy will take the pressure off your joints. Even if you're under doctor's orders to rest your legs, he may suggest you use a pull buoy to keep your legs stationary while using your upper body to pull you through the water. On the other hand, performing light kicking while swimming laps will help to strengthen your muscles while maintaining flexibility and range of motion in your joints.

If you're worried about accessibility because you're confined to a wheelchair, almost all public swimming pools provide access to the water in the form of a water-safe wheelchair or a chair lift that will lower you into the pool.

Water Walking/Jogging

If you're an avid walker or jogger and your leg injury is preventing you from hitting the pavement, ask your doctor if she'll approve a water walking or jogging workout. You can perform these routines in shallow or deep water by moving your arms and legs exactly as you would on land. The especially nice thing about taking your walk or jog to the pool is that you can maintain your fitness level while also maintaining your muscular capacity to effectively walk and jog on land. So, when your leg injury heals, you won't have to spend weeks or months regaining your strength and endurance.

Cycling

In some cases your doctor may suggest that you start working out on an upright or recumbent bike. Cycling takes away the pressure and impact of a cardio routine while maintaining range of motion and strengthening the leg muscles. In physical therapy, water exercise and cycling are typically the first steps on the road to recovery.

Performing the Exercise

Don't be surprised if you experience some pain in your injured leg while performing a cardio routine, particularly if you're using the injured leg in some capacity. Most people quit physical therapy because it hurts and it's hard. Talk to your doctor about the type of pain you're feeling to gauge whether or not it's normal and expected. If everything seems to be progressing as expected, aim to perform at least 20 minutes of cardio, five to six days a week while recovering from your injury.

Cardio Exercises with Leg Injury