exercise covid

The dos and don’ts of exercising after COVID-19

Almost 2.5 million Australians have now had COVID-19. Odds are, either you or someone you know has contracted the virus. We’ve had a lot of questions about returning to exercise after COVID-19, so we asked an Accredited Exercise Physiologist for their advice.

Let’s face it; COVID is pretty serious.

There aren’t many viruses out there that can potentially kill you, so having COVID can be really stressful. There’s also a broad range of symptoms you might experience. These including fatigue, concentration and memory problems, shortness of breath, muscle aches and pains as well as anxiety and other mental health conditions as a result of COVID.

And then there’s the recovery… Everyone’s experience is different, and therefore everyone’s journey back to exercise will be different too.

Getting back into life and exercise can often be challenging.

How long should you avoid exercise after having COVID?

There’s no hard and fast rule when it comes to this. Recovery from COVID is different for everyone and the most important thing is to listen to your body.

Initially, it’s important not to spread COVID! In the acute phase when you have COVID it’s essential that you move in a contained environment away from others.

In the early stages, think of any movement as a form of “exercise”. This could be getting up and going to the toilet or any other basics of your day. Movement can help stimulate the immune system and help people in their recovery however, it’s a fine balance.

If you feel uncomfortable, that’s a sign to take a break.

As you recover, you may continue to experience mild symptoms for around four to six weeks. This is okay and you can continue to exercise if you feel up to it. But remember, be the tortoise and not the hare. Slow and steady wins the race!

If you’re having symptoms that are limiting you, it’s not okay. Often this is a sign that you need further help and should reach out to your medical team.

Be patient with your body

Taking a break from exercise can often leave you feeling bad. You might worry about losing your fitness or motivation. However, it’s important to remember that even elite athletes taper or reduce exercise for such events as the Olympics. Having two to three weeks of less activity won’t have any long-term detrimental effects.

Do what feels right for you and don’t feel that you have to push through.

How should people approach exercise after having COVID?

This is a question we hear a lot and a very important one. Getting back into exercise may be very easy after having mild COVID, but for others, it can be challenging with ongoing symptoms.

The first thing you should do is listen to your body.

It’s important to recognise the signals your body is sending you; telling you to either stop, be careful or get going. We often talk about this as traffic lights. The stop being red lights, yellow being warning or be aware, and green meaning go.

As an example, a red light might be a cough or shortness of breath that leaves you unable to exercise or fatigue that limits you taking care of yourself (like having a shower or making meals).

A yellow light could be some shortness of breath or a little cough. You know you have it, but it doesn’t get in the way of doing activity.

Green lights, well, that’s when you’re feeling good and ready to go.

The most important thing is to start slowly

After having COVID it’s important to take it easy and be gentle. Often symptoms may not appear straight away. People often find that hours (or even the next day) after exercising, they can feel lethargy or some aches and pains. If this is the case, then it’s important that you slow down and speak with your health team to get the appropriate advice that is suited for you. Pushing through will not help.

Starting exercise could be as simple as having a shower, getting dressed or taking care of yourself. It’s important to do these before re-engaging in more vigorous or traditional exercise.

When you are ready to start exercising again, start with something gentle (like walking), then gradually build back to where you were. There is no one size fits all, and it’s important to listen to your body and find the right balance for you.

If you feel that you’re not able to get back into the exercise because of symptoms such as fatigue, muscle aches and pains, or shortness of breath, then talk to your health team and get further support to get you back in.

What signs should you look out for?

When it comes to figuring out what is “normal” when returning to exercise, it’s often better to think about what’s “appropriate”. If you have some shortness of breath while sitting on the couch, generally that’s not appropriate. However, if you get short of breath while exercising, then that’s appropriate and okay.

When you start exercising, think about what’s appropriate for the time that you spent away from exercising and the time you need to recover from having COVID. It’s normal to have some shortness of breath, minor aches and pains, fatigue, and a persistent cough for the weeks after the initial phase of COVID. However, if these are getting worse that day (or the next day) and limiting your ability to see friends and partake in life, then it’s important that you slow down and take it easier.

If you push through these symptoms, then they can last for longer. If you’re unsure how to engage in exercise, speak with your health team for some more guidance.

What about long COVID?

Long COVID is the term for people that have ongoing symptoms after the virus has left the body. These symptoms can include fatigue, sore throats, a persistent cough, muscle and joint aches and pains, shortness of breath, light-headedness, nausea, unrefreshing sleep and sensitivity to light or noise.

These symptoms can significantly impact your ability to lead a normal life, be there with your family, get back to social events, work, and exercise. If you find that you’re having these symptoms ongoing and beyond the 4-to-6-week range, it’s really important that you reach out for help. Trying to push through can lead to your condition worsening.

I’ve been working with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS) for the last 20 years and understand that fatigue is not the same as tiredness. Tiredness is having a busy day and is often or will be relieved by sleep. Fatigue is not relieved by sleep, can’t be pushed through and is often worsened by daily activity.

To manage fatigue, it’s important to pace your day. This means ensuring that you have the appropriate amount of rest to recover from activity throughout the day. You also need to start with small amounts of activity so that you can repeat it from day to day. Once you find this rhythm, you can gradually increase your activity to start to lead a full life.

In addition to this, it’s important to have a regular sleep routine, healthy diet, manage stress, and do sustainable exercise, so movement can be repeated each day without limiting you. If you feel that you have long COVID then it is essential that you reach out to your medical team to get support.

Getting the right advice

If you need help to start exercising after COVID, or your experiencing long COVID, an exercise physiologist can help to guide you through your return to movement safely. They will assess your capacity and prescribe exercises that are tailored to your individual needs. An exercise physiologist can also help to progressively increase your training load in a way that minimizes the risk of additional fatigue or a flare in symptoms.

To find an Accredited Exercise Physiologist near you, click here.

Written by Nathan Butler. Nathan is an Accredited Exercise Physiologist at the Active Health Clinic.