If you were an avid exerciser before having COVID-19, you might be itching to get back to your workouts straightaway. But before you jump back into the burpees with a vengeance, it’s crucial to make sure you’re ready, and that you do things right.
“This virus is so darn unpredictable,” says Cedric X. Bryant, Ph.D., president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise. Elite-level athletes have been sidelined after COVID-19 and we just don’t know why some people suffer long term and others escape unscathed. Experts learn new things every day and you don’t want to do anything that may jeopardize your health down the line, he adds.
So how can you make sure you stay safe while still getting the benefits of exercise? Here are five things you need to know.
Check in with your doctor before you check in at the gym. If you had any sort of chest pain, shortness of breath, palpitations or dizziness while you were sick, see a doctor before you get back to training, suggests Orangetheory Fitness Medical Advisory Board member David Perloff, MD, president of the Florida chapter of the American College of Cardiology. Even after the mildest cases of COVID-19, heart, lung and vascular damage can happen — and yes, in young people, he adds. While most athletes will be able to return to exercise after symptoms cease for at least 7 days, some may have to sit on the bench a bit longer. Those who had cardiac or heart-related symptoms may have to wait a few weeks, and those who had cardiac complications may have to wait as long as three to six months before returning to activity.
Start back in stages. Begin with light-intensity activities (think gentle walking, yoga, light strength-training, etc.) every other day, for no more than 30 minutes at a time. Keep a journal to record how you feel before, during and after activity, taking note of anything that seems unusual for you. “Always err on the side of caution and be ultraconservative until you know how your body responds,” Bryant says.
If you feel good after two weeks of this light activity, increase the duration of what you’re doing. In other words, go from 30 minutes, to 40 minutes, then to 45 minutes at the same light intensity. If you still feel good, add a day or two of activity during the week. When you’re sure you’re okay with that, challenge yourself a little more. Spend at least 7 days at each phase before moving to the next. Within each phase, you should not feel like the exercise is hard, either during or afterward. “You should be able to carry on a comfortable conversation,” says Bryant.
You can go back to OTF fairly quickly, as long as you take it easy. “The beauty of OTF is that everyone goes at their own pace,” says Perloff. Do make sure to get specific instructions from your doctor, and if you feel comfortable telling your coach you had COVID-19, share what your doctor has recommended so the coach can support you, suggests Perloff.
Backing off is not backing down. If you feel strained at any time, drop down a stage until you feel comfortable and confident. While you may be used to a “no pain, no gain” mentality, that simply doesn’t apply when it comes to exercise post-COVID-19. If at any point you feel chest pain or palpitations, nausea, lightheadedness or shortness of breath, or if you get a headache, stop exercising and see your doctor. “These are red flags that need to be evaluated,” says Perloff.
Don’t sweat about your Splat Points. Take it even slower than you think is necessary and never push yourself further than your body’s comfort level, says Bryant.
“People have to realize, when we take a normal break from exercise our performance capabilities decrease. But when you take time off because of an illness like COVID-19, you’re going to have an even more dramatic reduction in your fitness performance capabilities,” he says.
Perloff speaks from experience. “I had profound fatigue with COVID-19,” he says. “Before I was sick, I’d regularly run somewhere between 6 and 8 miles per hour on the treadmill, but when I returned to Orangetheory, I could tell I wasn’t physiologically as fit, so I started back as a power walker,” he says. “What I didn’t want to do was get my heart rate up too high and hurt myself,” he stresses.
Give your body what it needs. Make sure you stay hydrated before, during and after any activity. Drink plenty of water, particularly if you had any gastrointestinal symptoms when you were sick. Get at least 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night. And most of all, listen to your body. “If it’s telling you that you’re just not there yet, it’s okay. Give yourself a break and see a doctor,” says Perloff.
Finally, Perloff adds, while it’s human nature to want to push yourself, you have to realize that you’re different after having been infected with this virus. “Do it smart and do it slow.”