How to Regain Leg Strength After Hospitalization

At some point in everyone's life, a prolonged illness or injury will likely require a hospital stay. Even if you're the Incredible Hulk, you can expect to lose some muscle mass and strength — after as little as one week, according to a 2016 study in Diabetes. However, take heart. The body has an amazing capacity to repair itself once you're on the road to recovery. The best way to regain leg strength depends on your current physical abilities and energy level.

Work on mobility and flexibility as well as strength. (Image: takoburito/iStock/GettyImages)

Tip

Walking and body weight exercises will help you regain leg strength when you return home from the hospital.

Assess Your Abilities

You may be quite weak when you return home from the hospital. If you're not still confined to bed, just standing may take great effort, and you may still need assistance getting around and up and down stairs. On the other hand, you may be mobile but feel extreme fatigue, which will also affect your ability to exercise.

Be realistic about where you are and how much you can do right now. There are simple exercises you can start doing — even if you're bedridden — to start getting your strength back; then, you can gradually increase the challenge of the exercises as you regain mobility and energy. But this may take a while, so be patient. Doing too much too soon can backfire.

Tip

Before doing any exercises, check with your doctor to see what she recommends.

Follow Your Physical Therapy Program

Whether you had a specific leg injury or another type of injury or illness, your doctor may have prescribed physical therapy after a long hospital stay. Your physical therapist will devise a step-by-step program for rehabilitation after being bedridden that will be specific to your abilities and condition. If this is the case, be sure to follow this program consistently and communicate with your physical therapist about any concerns or questions you may have.

Even if you haven't received doctor's orders for physical therapy, working with a physical therapist in the beginning of your recovery can be very helpful — if it's accessible and affordable. You'll get an individualized plan with specific exercises and activities. Your physical therapist will likely also help you set goals for regaining leg strength that will keep you focused and motivated.

Get Up and Walk

Getting up and stable on your feet for increasing amounts of time and distance is the first step to getting strength back after bed rest. You may have already been doing this before you left the hospital, so you should continue to do it at home. Whether you're only able to walk the length of a hallway or you can walk around your block, get up and do it at least a few times a day, in accordance with your doctor's directions.

If you're still unstable on your feet, even just practicing standing by your bed can begin to strengthen the small stabilizer muscles that support your knees and ankles. Do this carefully; make sure you have someone to support you or a walker or sturdy piece of furniture to lean on. If standing on both feet is easy, try lifting one foot and then the other.

Start With Body Weight Exercises

No need to rush back to the gym just yet — or even pick up a weight. You're just getting started, so take it easy. You can do simple strengthening exercises without even getting out of bed. However, if you're able, challenge yourself by doing standing exercises.

Leg lifts: Lie on your back and extend one leg. Keeping the leg straight, raise it to 45 degrees and then lower to hover. Repeat 10 to 20 times; then switch legs. Do one to three sets total.

Side leg lifts: Lie on your side with one leg on top of the other. Lift your leg to 45 degrees. Then lower it to briefly touch your bottom leg before lifting it again. Repeat 10 to 20 times on both sides for one to three sets.

Double leg lifts: Lie on your back and lift both legs together, even if it's just a few inches. Keep your abdominals contracted and press your lower back into the bed or floor. Repeat five to 10 times for one to three sets.

Bridges: Bend your knees and press your feet into the bed or floor. Contract your core muscles and lift your hips in line with your knees. Repeat 10 times for one to three sets.

Standing exercises:

Squats: Stand with your feet shoulder-distance apart or wider. Keep your toes pointing forward or slightly out. Keep your torso erect and chest facing out as you bend your knees to slowly lower as if sitting in a chair. Come down as low as you can without your heels lifting; then rise to the starting position.

Lunges: Take a big step forward with one leg. Bend the front and back knees as close to 90 degrees as you can. Make sure your front knee doesn't travel beyond your front toes; if it does, walk your front foot forward a little. Press through your feet to rise back to starting position and repeat 10 times. Do one to three sets.

Calf raises: Stand on a step with your heels hanging off the edge. Keeping your legs straight, rise onto your toes as high as you can. Then lower your heels until they dip below the step. Repeat for one to three sets of 10 repetitions. Increase the challenge by doing single-leg calf raises.

Single-leg balance with hip hinge: Stand on one leg with the other leg slightly bent. Slowly hinge at the hips so your raised leg extends behind you and your torso moves toward the floor. Go only as far as you comfortably can; then return to the starting position. Repeat 10 times on both legs for up to three sets. If you feel unstable on one leg, hold on to a wall or a piece of furniture for support.

Work on Mobility and Flexibility

Mobility is the ease with which your joints move through their full range of motion, and flexibility is the capacity of your muscles to lengthen. You will have lost both mobility and flexibility, and regaining them is important for building leg strength and function. It's as important in the first phase of rehabilitation as gaining muscle strength.

The good thing is that you don't even have to get out of bed to work on building mobility and flexibility in your lower body. Try these exercises in bed or on the couch or floor:

Leg, knee and ankle circles: Start with both legs extended. Lift one leg and, keeping it as straight as you can, begin to move it in circles at the leg socket. Start with small circles and then increase the diameter. Do five to 10 circles in one direction; then switch directions. Make sure to do both legs.

Lift one leg again. Keeping the upper leg static, move your lower leg in circles at the knee joint. Do five to 10 repetitions in one direction; then switch. Do the same with both legs.

Finally, extend the leg and do ankle circles, rotating each foot in one direction and then the opposite direction.

Stretch and extend: Start with your legs extended. Bend one knee and draw it in toward your face. If you are able, clasp your hands around the upper shin and gently pull the knee in. Hold for a few seconds; then extend the leg as straight as possible without setting it down. Repeat five times and switch sides.

Side-lying quadriceps and hip flexor stretch: Roll onto one side with your legs stacked on top of each other. Bend your top leg and reach your foot toward your top buttock. If you're able, reach back and grasp the foot with your top hand.

Keep your knees in one line and press out through the top hip to feel the stretch. Hold for 10 seconds and release. Repeat three times; then switch sides.

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