Worried about your post-pandemic fitness level? Here's how to get back to your base pace safely and sanely
With many Orangetheory Fitness studios reopening after months of being closed, you may be feeling mixed emotions.
On one hand — Hooray! It’ll be great to be back in the groove, to see coaches and classmates I haven’t seen since March!
On the other hand — Yikes! What if I can’t keep up? What if I’ve lost everything I worked so hard to attain?
First, know that hope is far from lost (as you’ll see in the tips below). But also realize that unless you’ve diligently kept up your training — perhaps with our ongoing At-Home Workouts — you probably will have lost some effects, particularly cardiovascularly.
“Fitness takes longer to gain than it does to lose,” says Laurie P. Whitsel, vice president of policy research and translation for the American Heart Association.
But try not to despair, she says. Life has been crazy lately, so you just have to forgive yourself and move forward.
“If you've taken a break during COVID-19, that’s fine,” Dr. Whitsel says. “This is a stressful time. Maybe we’ve devoted more time to our families, or we’re adjusting to working a different way. So take time off; that’s OK. Then jump back in and do those wonderful things for your heart. You don’t want to give that up.”
When workouts do get sporadic or cease completely, that starts the body into what’s known as the detraining effect — “an interesting area of research,” says Fabio Comana. He’s a member of the Orangetheory Fitness medical advisory board and on the faculty of San Diego State University.
Some people, studies have shown, may lose training effects in a few days; for others, it may take a month or more. Just how quickly depends on factors like age, general health, the presence of underlying issues such as diabetes, and VO2 max (a measure of how much oxygen the body utilizes during intense workouts).
“Let’s say you trained and had an amazing VO2 max in the 60s,” Comana says. “Then you stop. It may drop 10 percent, so you’re down to 54. That’s still high, and in day-to-day living you won’t be winded. But if you’re an older adult with a 25 VO2 max and have a 10 percent drop, it will compromise your activities of daily living.”
Cardiovascular fitness tends to be lost more quickly than muscle strength, Comana says. Here’s why:
“Muscle adaptations are architectural changes; that is, you’re building bigger muscles,” Comana explains. “But cardiovascular fitness is a mechanism for becoming more efficient, rather than a structure.”
Added to that physical mix is what’s going on in our brains.
“Any time we’re confronted with a decision” — whether to exercise or not, maybe — “our brains are doing a sort of analysis, weighing the benefits of the decision with the potential costs,” says Shannon Odell, a neuroscientist on OTF’s medical advisory board.
“After falling out of the habit of exercising or of taking time to focus on fitness, that cost may feel extra high,” says Dr. Odell, who admits to slipping out of her own exercise routine. “And research suggests that our brains are wired to follow the path of least resistance, or to make choices that require the least amount of effort.”
So, since not doing anything is easier than doing something, no wonder we may be kind of in limbo about how, when and — hearing how quickly we’ve lost fitness — why to start back.
That said, please don’t make a U-turn from the door of your recently reopened Orangetheory Fitness studio and head back to your car. Ditto for refraining from plopping back down on your favorite sofa with a bag of chips and a root beer.
Because while getting back to your pre-quarantine level may seem like a looming mountaintop, you can do it. And once you reach the summit, you’ll see that breathtaking view and feel that sense of accomplishment all over again. Plus, your OTF buddies are counting on you — to do it, and to motivate them to do it, too.
“We tend to focus on weight,” Dr. Whitsel says, “but we really need to emphasize overall the benefits of physical activity, the mental health and well-being, the positive effect on the cardiovascular system, on your muscles; you’ll feel stronger, have better balance and flexibility, and reduce the risk of falls.”
It’s all a matter of feeling safe, of getting started, of planning ahead, of not being hard on yourself if you’re out of breath long before you used to be.
Rest assured that every Orangetheory Fitness studio is implementing and following strict protocols for safety in many ways, including these:
After class, the studios are emptied and then disinfected by mask- and glove-wearing staffers for a full 15 minutes before the next group of members comes in.
Class sizes are strictly reduced, and no congregating is allowed after class ends. During class, each member is assigned a certain station to minimize sharing of equipment and cross-contamination.
Also, although many studios have reopened, your at-home schedule may still be as crazy as ever, or health issues may keep you from feeling comfortable returning to your beloved studio. So please remember that OTF At Home has new workouts every day.
Exercise is a wonder drug, but you can’t feel the effects until you fill your own prescription.
“In this time of COVID and stress, exercise can be a great relief for your body and your mind,” Dr. Whitsel says. “It’s more important than ever.”
If you’ve been away from exercise, or just lax in consistency, Comana says the first thing to consider goes beyond physiology.
“A lot of times when we’ve detrained, it may not be our choice; it may be circumstances,” he says. “Say you had no ability to work out for a month or two. You’ve not just detrained; you’ve changed your behavior.”
Start to re-engage those behaviors that got you in shape; get back to exercising consistently, he says. Surprisingly, motivation doesn’t work as well as believing in yourself to accomplish something.
“Where are you most likely to be successful?” he says. “The human brain doesn’t like uncertainty, but that’s what COVID has presented to us — uncertainty. The best way to overcome it is to develop structure.”
Try a behavior once and evaluate it, he says.
“If it’s something enjoyable and you could do it again, move it to two times and then to three. It’s building tiny habits and creating an automatic process.”
Studies show the best way to stay motivated is by setting “small, difficult but still achievable goals,” Dr. Odell says. “So don’t expect yourself to hit that personal best the first week. Remember: Slow and steady.”
The silver lining of all this? “We’ll probably recondition faster the second time than the first,” Comana says.
When you’ve scheduled a class online and put it on your calendar, you’re more likely than not to show up. It’s a matter of holding yourself accountable. You wouldn’t schedule a haircut or a dental appointment and just not show up, would you?
Lightening up on yourself
OK, you’ve been doing some neighborhood walking, maybe some crunches and push-ups, maybe some at-home workouts. You’ve signed up for an OTF class (which is a must-do these days) and are ready.
Here are some tips to making your comeback as successful as possible:
Count on your coach. The coach can assume a leadership role, Comana says, instructing in this way: “We’re going to do this program, and you might traditionally do it at full intensity and push yourself. But today, I want you to find an intensity that’s challenging but not too difficult.”
Listen to your body. If it’s telling you to slow down or take an option suggested by your coach, go for it. “You’re feeling appropriate for where you are,” Dr. Whitsel says. “Don’t feel guilty; it’s all part of ramping back up.”
Encourage each other. “It’s human nature to be competitive,” Comana says, "but the coach can change the mindshift from competitive to supportive. Pick up your neighbor; it’s fortunate for them and fortunate for you.”
Additionally, he says, “Diminish the urge to peek over and see how the person next to you is doing.”
And since social distancing keeps us from hugging or high-fiving each other at the end of class, it’s especially important to acknowledge classmates with a two-word call-out: “Great job!”
About the Author
Leslie Barker has written about and lived her passion – health and fitness – for decades, most recently as senior writer for The Dallas Morning News. Her essays, tips and ways to find joy in even the simplest of circumstances have inspired couch potatoes to start moving as well as more experienced exercisers to keep moving.