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Healthy Adjustment to Career-Ending Injury or Health Condition Part 6: Retaining Physicality

by Katja Thacker

Competing in sports allows us to engage in physical exercise. It could be something calm like practicing yoga or something more extreme like racing (think Usain Bolt tearing past his competition at 28 MPH). Exercise allows us to burn calories, boost our metabolism, increase our endurance, lose weight and lower the risk of some diseases. Competing in sports also allows for emotional fulfillment. It can provide us with lifelong friendships, memorable moments, a release for aggression, feelings of accomplishment, and our identity. Unfortunately, competitive athletes often focus solely on performance-related results such as winning vs. losing or chasing after new personal records and lose sight of all the other advantages their athletic experience provides them. Many don’t realize just how much of an impact their competitive sport has on their lives until their competitive days are over.

The reality is, for many athletes, the peak performance era in competitive sports is sometimes ended sooner than expected. Whether that be a career-ending injury, repeat injuries that eventually make a comeback next to impossible, a new medical diagnosis, or a series of concussions that threaten to impact long-term brain health, being forced out of a competitive sport due to medical reasons can be devastating.  More than “losing your sport” at this point, you may feel like you’ve also been stripped of your identity. Somehow, you need to make a mental shift and create a new identity. Granted, this can be extremely difficult and can take years. However, there are many ways to make this transition easier. One specific way is to retain your physicality.

Retaining physicality for life after competitive sports can offer several physical and emotional benefits.

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The physical benefits of retaining physicality include:

  1. Help with fatigue, headaches, insomnia, loss of appetite and weakness. Exercising can even help with your concentration!

  2. Prevention of the common cold and flu.

  3. Improved stability.

  4. Lowered blood pressure.

  5. Increased flexibility and posture.

The emotional benefits of retaining physicality include:

  1. A boost of endorphins.

    Endorphins are known as the “feel good” chemical and are released in our bodies when we exercise. They leave us feeling happy and therefore it has been proven engaging in physical activity can help manage depression. When we feel happy emotionally, we tend to make better decisions which can affect our wellbeing and overall long term mood.  

  2. A release of negative emotions.

    According to Matt Brown, PhD, a sports psychologist who studied healthy adjustment to career-ending injury in elite athletes, “For one participant, sport represented a ‘release’ for aggression. He found the loss of this release difficult.” If your sport represented a way for you to release negative emotions, it is an important part of your personal mental health to find healthy ways to release those emotions going forward. Finding different sports or exercise activities that fit within your medical restrictions can help you release those negative emotions just as before. You may need to give some sports a chance that you have previously dismissed. Golfing, swimming, cycling, or archery may be good options for many athletes going forward. Be sure to talk to your doctor about what options work within your personal restrictions.  It may be difficult to transition to a sport that doesn’t have the same “feel” to you, but if you keep an open mind and give it a fair shake, you may find that the role of “competition” itself is what gives you the outlet for the release you are looking for.

  3. A decrease in depressive symptoms.

    Exercise fights feelings of depression while relieving symptoms of anxiety, pain, insomnia, fatigue and brain fog. We often think of a good work out as hours spent in the gym, benching heavy weight, and participating in tough competitive drills. However, an effective workout can be something quick to get your heart pumping and endorphins boosted. One study found that 30-minute aerobic workouts done three to five times a week cut depressive symptoms by 50 percent in young adults. For some, antidepressant medication may be recommended but exercise and medication are not mutually exclusive therapies for treating depression.  Research supports the idea that antidepressants work better when combined with other non-pharmacological approaches including counseling, participation in support groups, and physical exercise.

  4. A state of calm.

    When exercising, your body releases what is known as a GABA neurotransmitter which inhibits excessive neuronal firing. Basically what this means is exercise can encourage a general state of calm. A state of calm can certainly be helpful during a transitionary period as you can make better decisions when you are level-headed. Some other tools to help you with finding a calm state (besides exercise) are meditation, prayer, and relaxation techniques.

Even though this information is helpful, don’t get bogged down with the details or make exercising complicated. Ever heard the phrase, “Get in your head, you’re dead” by Tony Robbins? If you think about something too much, you will talk yourself out of it - just get moving!

As you slowly begin to incorporate exercising back into your routine, it’s important to remember that consistency is far more important than intensity.

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You don’t even need a gym. You can incorporate workouts every day in your own home. Check out this link to learn how to incorporate HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) into your home routine without the need for gym equipment. Keep in mind, especially if you have been sidelined due to medical reasons, it’s important to check with your doctor before adopting a new exercise plan to make sure it’s safe for you.  

As you get back to being active, always remember to check in with yourself and pay attention to how much energy you have. If you are too tired or you fall back into a tough mental state, allow yourself to feel and sort through those feelings. If you push yourself too hard or against your will, you often will get the reverse effect.  

Remember, with every workout, you will feel a little bit stronger, both physically and emotionally. You are a competitor at heart! One female athlete (a 31-year old runner) who was going through a difficult transition said, “The running helped me remember, ‘I am big. I am strong.’ . . . In the beginning, I thought, ‘I may not be able to control all these other things in my life, but I can control this.’ Then it became, ‘Well, if I can control that, what else can I take back?”

Retaining physicality is much more than just getting a workout in. It can be the stepping stone to finding new passions that excite you and help you rebuild your identity. Remember, you are in control. Life is not happening to you, it’s happening for you.

Exercising can build you up both physically and emotionally, and help you make better decisions while building a support team around you. You have your whole life ahead of you, what will you do with it?


Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only. Neither Sidelined USA nor its affiliates provide clinical or medical care of any kind via their relationship with Sidelined. At no time should a user have an expectation of clinical care or professional services offered or rendered. 

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Katja Thacker

Integrative Wellness and Life Coach

Meeting members of Sidelined USA and hearing their story resonated with me on a deep level right off the bat. As an athlete growing up, I quickly learned sports are glamorized in society: money, fame and power. Because of this, we all strive for this level of greatness and success in sports. However, what happens when you don't reach the level of greatness you intended due to unforeseen circumstances? Nobody talks about it or at least, it’s not talked about enough. I wanted to be a part of the conversation of life after sports. It's an interesting transition from "sports is life" to "now what"? Here to help shed light on this issue and honored to be a resource and partner of such a necessary program.

Instagram: kj.today