*This article is inspired by the ESSA article ‘Exercising after COVID-19’ (Nathan Butler, ESSA Exercise Right, 2022)

Let’s face it, COVID-19 is no normal cold. Even after overcoming the acute infection, many people don’t feel like their usual self right away. This may look like fatigue, difficulty concentrating, shortness of breath, and muscle pains. It may feel de-motivating trying to get your previous level of fitness back. The following are some simple considerations on how to safely return to exercise after COVID-19.

When can I return to exercise?

Everybody’s recovery journey is different. It is crucial to listen to your body. As you recover, you may still feel mild symptoms for approximately four to six weeks. At this stage, it’s important to understand that your body is telling you something.

A red flag may include a deep cough or shortness of breath that leaves you lightheaded. In this case, cease exercise and return when your health improves more.

A yellow flag may be a slight dry cough and slight shortness of breath, that doesn’t affect your exercise. If this is the case, remain cautious, and slow down your pace. Take a break if you feel it’s necessary.

There is no shame in taking more frequent breaks, even if the exercise load is lighter than before. If you are experiencing abnormal levels of discomfort that are affecting daily life, it’s important to seek help from your medical team.

Redefining ‘exercise’

In this sensitive post-recovery phase, exercise does not have to be rigorous running or a HIIT workout. You get to re-define what exercise means to you. For example, it can simply mean moving your body for 15 minutes.

Exercise can be as simple as taking care of yourself, cleaning the house, or gardening. Try not to underestimate these functional activities as a form of physical activity, they all make your body move!

Pace yourself

Some have it easy, but some have it harder. It’s important to not compare your exercise recovery to others.

Firstly, it is important to follow a slow, progressive exercise approach, irrespective of your previous level of fitness. There is no one size fits all approach to this.

For some, starting ‘exercise’ can be as simple as getting out of bed and taking a long shower. That is more than acceptable. It engages your mind, body, and gets you moving. For others, it may mean returning to a long walk.

Goal Setting

If you feel ready to take on the mental load, it can be beneficial to define a clear, achievable exercise goal. These goals can be a mental finish line, giving you motivation and also a chance to see your progress.

These goals should be safe, specific, and realistic.

For example, you may recognise some yellow flag symptoms during a 1km walk. Therefore, a safe goal would be to reduce the walking distance. Specifically, you may try an 800m walk. This is a realistic approach as it reduces the risk of exertion, but also gives enough room for exercise improvement and satisfaction.

It is important to evaluate these goals, particularly if you feel they are too ambitious for your current fitness levels. Goals aren’t cemented, and you have the power to modify them if necessary.

Progress isn’t linear

During your re-introduction of exercise, it is crucial to understand that progress isn’t linear, it doesn’t necessarily go up and up and up.

You may instead find that one day you may achieve your goal, and the next day you can’t repeat it. Our body’s needs change every day. Perhaps you didn’t sleep the same amount, or eat the same food. It’s only natural, and sometimes unavoidable.

If you find yourself discouraged, try to either re-evaluate your exercise goals, and see if it was too ambitious for your current physical fitness.

You can also try getting into the habit of assessing your health on that day, and setting a new goal accordingly.

What if I have long-COVID?

Long-COVID is when you experience persistent symptoms for more than six weeks, despite the virus leaving the body.

Firstly, it’s important to ensure you have a current medical professional network to help you get your health back, and recover safely.

As a component of your recovery, exercise is just as important.  It’s integral you slowly reintroduce physical activity and pace your day.  It’s important to ensure that you pace yourself, following similar principles to that of most COVID-19 recovering people, but perhaps starting slower.

Exercise doesn’t exist alone, and it shouldn’t be your only focus. A healthy body, and fitness success, depends highly on good quality sleep, diet, and mental health management as well.

It may also help if you develop an action plan with a healthcare professional for ongoing guidance.

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