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How to Adjust Your Workout to Overcome a Vet’s Old Injuries

Follow these expert tips to ease pain and build strength and flexibility


spinner image a man is working out
Photos/Giffs: Andrew Hetherington

Serving your country can be a punishing business, and veterans pay the price in later years for all that wear and tear while in uniform.

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You can subscribe here to AARP Veteran Report, a free e-newsletter published every two weeks. If you have feedback or a story idea then please contact us here.

“If your workout routine isn’t going so well due to serious or chronic pain, it might be time to stop and meet with a physician,” orthopedic surgeon Brian Carr, an 18-year Army veteran, tells AARP Veteran Report.

But with some niggling old injuries, it is often a case of making simple tweaks to your workout.

Ben Reale, an ultramarathoner who served as a Marine Corps officer, is an Atlanta-based personal trainer and nutrition coach. He explains to AARP Veteran Report readers how they can adjust for injuries while keeping fit:

spinner image feet and ankles workout
Photos/Giffs: Andrew Hetherington

Feet and ankles

The former Leatherneck says some veterans are so used to an all-or-nothing approach to fitness that they do too much too quickly and end up with a heel and foot condition called plantar fasciitis, involving the tendon that runs along the sole of your foot.

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Ease into new exercises slowly. Often, balance is an issue.

Try this: Stand on one foot for five to 10 seconds and work up to three sets per foot. You can advance to raising your knee to hip height. For more advanced balance work to strengthen the feet, move a bent or extended knee out and to the sides. Try going barefoot to further work on stability.

Also try this: Drop your heel off the back of a stair to stretch your calf.  “Work up to 60 seconds … it should be very gentle,” Reale says.

spinner image squat while leaning on a wall
Photos/Giffs: Andrew Hetherington

Knees

Squats are a key exercise in many workouts. “Squats are tough because what I’ve found is it’s very difficult for an older demographic to work their lower body, like their quads and hamstrings,” Reale says. “The flexibility is not there.” This can lead to knee and back pain. 

Try this: Do an “isometric” exercise, which uses tension rather than contraction of a muscle. In this case, replace your squat with a wall sit, where you aren’t moving. You can also try a leg lift, or a glute bridge, in which you lie on your back with bent knees, squeezing and raising your butt off the ground, then back down.

Try this too: Instead of a lunge, which might aggravate old knee injuries, hold on to something stable and do 25 percent of the normal distance down in a lunge. Work within “whatever the pain-free range of motion” is, even if it’s a small movement, Reale says. It might take months, but eventually, you’ll notice that range expanding.

spinner image one leg deadlift
Photos/Giffs: Andrew Hetherington

Back

You might think you need to build back muscles to reduce back pain, but the secret is in the abs. “If your trunk and your core can’t provide any stability and any form to the body, then when you start moving around, your low back is probably going to take the brunt of that,” Reale explains.

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Try this: Swap deadlifts that aggravate your back with a one-leg deadlift for more stability.

And this: Build your core with planks, adding seconds over time, until you can properly hold a plank for 60 seconds, and eventually 90. 

spinner image shoulders and abs workout
Photos/Giffs: Andrew Hetherington

Shoulders and abs

Reale points to the slouching posture many of us have, in which our shoulder blades aren’t contracting close together. This causes pain, especially at the bottom of a press exercise.

Try this: Switch from weights to bands. “They’re not as sexy as the barbell, but they’re really effective. And they give you the foundation to get your posture in the right place and get some control through the shoulder blades.” Simple scapular stabilization exercises with a band can ease shoulder pain and get you back on track.

And this: Sexy ab muscles aren’t the goal. Build core strength with some of the go-tos you might have learned in boot camp, from planks to hollow body holds.

Bottom line

Veterans should pay attention to pain. “They’ve been in the military, they grind it out, and you get used to pain in the military — it’s just natural, and you got to work through it,” Reale said. “But that doesn’t translate to the outside work.”

Exercising with care and, if you can, using a qualified trainer to help with form and technique will lead to pain-free workouts that should sustain you for decades to come.

You can subscribe here to AARP Veteran Report, a free e-newsletter published every two weeks. If you have feedback or a story idea then please contact us here.

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