How to Restart Exercise After COVID-19

“This is a long distance event. This is not a sprint.”

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After recovering from COVID-19—a viral infection that primarily targets the respiratory system—life may feel a lot different. You may not feel 100 percent yourself just yet, but you also know that it’s important to take care of yourself. How do you know when it’s safe to exercise again?

“Don't assume that just because you're feeling better, that everything is okay,” says Noah Greenspan, DPT, CCS, EMT-B, clinical specialist in cardiovascular and pulmonary physical therapy. “There's something called post-COVID syndrome that we're seeing ... patients are winding up with a ton of inflammatory issues—joint pain, muscle pain, shortness of breath, things like that.”

It appears that some people can have these long-term symptoms of COVID-19 for months after they’ve recovered from the illness. Starting an exercise program too soon before they’re ready may actually make things worse.

Talk to Your Doctor

“Before starting any exercise program, number one, you must be evaluated by a doctor … don’t skip that step,” says Dr. Greenspan.

Your doctor may run some tests, or refer you to a specialist if necessary. People with preexisting conditions, such as heart disease or diabetes, who are at higher risk of COVID-19 complications, may need additional testing or a risk assessment before returning to regular exercise. Once you get the OK, make a plan to add exercise back in ... slowly.

Start Slow

“Err on the side of slow, steady, long-term improvement. This is definitely a long distance event. This is not a sprint. And if you do sprint, if you overdo it, my fear is that you're going to set yourself back and could potentially make your symptoms more long-term or permanent,” says Dr. Greenspan.

During exercise, listen to your body: If you’re struggling, you may need more time to recover. Don’t push it. If you’re feeling well, increase your exercise load just 5 or 10 percent more than your previous best each time.

It’s also important to balance your activity with rest and recovery. Overdoing it can prolong your recovery time, so take it easy and talk to a doctor if long-term symptoms are keeping you down.

“Take one step. Stop. Assess it that day. See how you feel the next day. And if you feel good, repeat it, just to make sure you're good,” says Dr. Greenspan. “Throw the stone, let the pool ripple, see what the effects are. Don't start with a boulder, start with a pebble.”