Nothing puts a damper on an exercise program quite like a sprained ankle. If you have experienced this painful injury, you may be worried about how long it will take before you can exercise again. While rest of the joint is important, with your doctor’s direction, there may be ways to include aerobic exercise while healing from a sprained ankle.
A sprain is the medical term for tearing or stretching the ligaments of your joints. Sprained ankles, the most common form of sprains, usually respond well to home treatment, but some serious sprains could require surgery to repair the damage. The RICE protocol -- rest, ice, compression and elevation -- is the standard first step of home treatment which protects the ankle and helps reduce swelling. The next phase of treatment involves restoring flexibility, range of motion and strength, then gradually resuming physical activities that protect the ankle until it heals. This last step is where aerobic exercise can be included.
Preventing Recurrent Injury
When your doctor approves the last phase of treating your sprained ankle -- gradually resuming physical activity -- low or no impact aerobic exercise can be considered. It’s important to avoid exercise that may twist or turn the ankle, increasing the chance of reinjury. Clinical guidelines published in the April 2012 issue of “British Journal of Sports Medicine” report that taping the ankle or wearing a brace helps prevent recurrent injury to the ankle, particularly in those active in sports.
Aerobic exercise enhances blood flow and oxygen delivery throughout the body. This type of exercise involves movement that is sustained for a period of time -- such as biking, walking, swimming or rowing. In the final phase of recovering from an ankle sprain, low impact aerobic exercises may be included according to your doctor’s guidance. A study published in the August 2010 issue of “PM&R” determined that water exercises, initially geared at increasing strength and range of motion, then after 3 to 4 weeks incorporating aerobic exercise such as water walking, were superior to land-based exercises in promoting recovery and rehabilitation. Other potential low impact aerobic exercises include chair exercises where the upper body is primarily involved in movement, or an exercise bike, provided the pedaling doesn’t increase pain.
If you are a committed athlete or exercise enthusiast, you might not want to give up your workouts. However, sprained ankles can take about 4 to 6 weeks to heal, and resuming activity on an injured joint too soon can lengthen your total recovery time and set you up for long-term health issues. So it's best to follow your doctor’s advice on resuming exercise. Your doctor may also refer you to a physical therapist for guidance on exercise to increase strength, range of motion and to help you safely resume sports or recreational exercise. If your ankle is healing more slowly than expected, or if you have ongoing pain, see your doctor.
Reviewed by: Kay Peck, MPH, RD
- British Journal of Sports Medicine: Diagnosis, Treatment and Prevention of Ankle Sprains: An Evidence-Based Clinical Guideline
- Amercian Council on Exercise: Safe and Effective Exercise Program
- PM&R: Aquatic Versus Land-Based Exercises as Early Functional Rehabilitation for Elite Athletes with Acute Lower Extremity Ligament Injury: A Pilot Study
- American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons: Sprained Ankle