- After taking a long break from physical activity, most people will not be able to perform at the same level they once did.
- It’s important to manage expectations and set realistic goals when easing back into exercise after a break.
- Varying your workouts and including strength training in your fitness routine will help you increase your endurance and reduce the risk of injury.
If you took a long break from exercise during the COVID-19 pandemic, you’re not alone.
The stress and uncertainty of the past year, along with the closure of many gyms and need for physical distancing, have thrown off many people's workout routines.
Getting sick from COVID-19, a debilitating disease with weeks or sometimes months of symptoms, has also greatly limited the ability to engage in physical activity for many people.
As vaccines continue to roll out throughout the United States and restrictions begin to ease, it’s natural that many people are eager to get active again.
However, there are some things people should be mindful of while restarting their fitness routines to avoid injury and get the most out of returning to exercise.
Manage your expectations
People who have taken a long break from exercise are likely to find that they may not be able to do the things they once could.
Whether this is running a 5K or holding a yoga pose, experts say not being able to perform at the same level is to be expected.
Still, this may be difficult for some to accept.
Many people, especially those who were very athletic or worked out a lot before the pandemic, may think they’re more capable physically than they actually are, said Christina Frederick, PhD, a psychologist who specializes in motivation for sport and exercise.
“Our physical appearance, our perceived fitness, and our identity as an athlete or fit person are all part of who we are,” she told Healthline.
“As we age or when significant long-term events happen in our lives (like the pandemic), our fitness can also be negatively impacted. When that happens there is cognitive dissonance between our fitness-based identity and the reality of the situation,” she said.
Common reactions people may have to this are frustration and anger. But these feelings won’t serve you if you’re trying to get back into fitness.
“Angry or frustrated people can set unrealistic goals or jump into a routine that is too hard or too intense,” said Frederick, who is also an associate professor of psychology and human factors at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida. “They risk losing motivation through failure experiences or injury.”
She said a healthier option is “to engage in self-examination and to reassess objectively who we are and where we are.”
“This can lead to the creation of goals to help motivate us to get back on track and reengage in fitness and health activities so that our identity and our reality of self come into alignment again,” Frederick said.
Getting back to exercise safely
The key to returning to exercise safely after a long break is to take small steps and frequently change up your routine, said Dr. Melissa Leber, FACEP, director of emergency department sports medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City.
“The way our bodies work is that we really do need to gradually ease back into the training regimen,” she told Healthline. “And your training regimen needs to be varied in terms of intensity, frequency, and the type of workout you do.”
For example, for someone who used to run frequently before a long break, Leber recommends introducing interval training or jogging two or three times a week along with low-impact workouts like yoga or Pilates on other days of the week.
“Our bodies don’t respond well to the same repetitive action and the same sport over and over and over again,” Leber said.
In addition to building endurance, this kind of cross-training will also help prevent injury.
Strength training is also an important part of getting back to exercise safely, as weakened muscles can lead to joint pain.
“The older you are, the more important that gets,” Leber said.
If you do end up pushing yourself too hard and get injured, rest is important.
“Take a break from that exercise that caused it and take an anti-inflammatory medication like ibuprofen,” Leber said.
She recommends giving it about a week to see whether the injury gets better.
During that time, you can still do other types of exercise. For example, if you have knee pain from running, try going for a swim.
If the injury does not subside within a week, it’s time to see your doctor.
“If you have joint swelling or can’t bear weight, then I would seek out medical attention sooner than later,” Leber said.
Tips to stay motivated
If you don’t see results from your new workout routine right away, it can get frustrating, and you may be tempted to give up. But remember, it will only get easier with time.
“Once you make exercise a habit and a routine, your endorphins and your own brain are actually able to motivate you,” Leber said. “But making it a habit and making it a routine is the hardest first step.”
To make exercise an enjoyable habit, it’s important to choose activities you like to do, Frederick said.
“For instance, I love cardio-type activities, but I hate to run,” she said. “If I want to get in shape, it makes little motivational sense for me to choose running. It makes more sense for someone to examine what they enjoy doing for health and fitness, and what options they have locally to engage in those things.”
Additionally, if you enjoy activities that are more social in nature, you may want to look into taking an outdoor fitness class or finding a workout partner to stay engaged and motivated.
Finally, to stay on track, experts recommend setting goals and using a fitness device or mobile app to track your progress.
“Goals should be specific, realistic, and attainable,” Frederick said. “Maybe you can only do 3 days of walking per week for 30 minutes at a time and you will try to get your heart rate to 60 percent of max. That’s great! Articulate it and track it.”
Keep at it even if you can’t attain your goals right away.
“We don't graduate college after a few months,” Frederick said. “Why should we think we will be fit after a couple tries? Once you attain your goal and sustain it, then increase the challenge.”