Returning to Exercise Post-COVID-19

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May 26, 2021


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Returning to exercise after an illness like COVID-19 takes planning and patience, says Maria Kyriacou, M.D., a primary care sports medicine physician at Miami Orthopedics & Sports Medicine Institute. Partnering with your healthcare provider will ensure your safe and gradual return to physical activity.

“People who have had COVID-19, particularly those with pre-existing conditions, should visit their physician before returning to exercise to confirm their symptom resolution and assess their pulmonary and cardiovascular health,” Dr. Kyriacou explained.

Research has shown that the virus can affect many organs, particularly the heart and lungs. Returning to high-intensity activities too quickly can be harmful. On the other hand, too much time without exercise can be harmful as well, as the health benefits of being physically active have been well established. To ease back into an exercise routine after recovering from COVID-19, follow these tips from Dr. Kyriacou: 

Take it slow. Experts suggest adopting a four-phase approach with a minimum of one week spent in each phase. Light intensity activities such as stretching, yoga, Tai Chi and walking are good options for the first two phases. In phases three and four, you can introduce resistance training and aerobic exercises that challenge your balance, coordination and strength. Advancing to more strenuous exercise should happen gradually and slowly, with the goal of returning to pre-coronavirus activities over a period of weeks or even months.

Be patient. Don’t push too hard on a body that is still recovering. This virus causes inflammation, and it takes time to recover. Keep in mind that your progression may take longer if you’ve experienced significant deconditioning. The saying “use it or lose it” applies to muscle. If you stop using your muscles, you will see a decline in muscle mass and strength, especially as you age, explains Dr. Kyriacou. 

Listen to your body. If you experience symptoms such as chest pain or heart palpitations, stop exercising immediately and consult with your physician. Be mindful while exercising, otherwise you risk hurting yourself. Keeping a journal and wearing devices and trackers can also help you track your progress and intensity levels.  

Set realistic expectations. Many people set very high expectations and then get frustrated if they have a setback or don’t see immediate results. It’s important to keep in mind what your body has been through and allow it time to adjust, advises Dr. Kyriacou. Although you may not see results in the first few weeks, you will over time.

Exercise is a long-term investment in your overall health. The immediate benefits of exercise include improved sleep quality, decreased anxiety, improved mood and reduced blood pressure. Over the long-term, regular exercise enhances brain health, lowers the risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer and other diseases, improves bone health, reduces weight gain and improves immune function. And if you need more motivation to get moving, consider this: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that people who are physically active for about 150 minutes a week have a 33 percent lower risk of mortality than those who are physically inactive.

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