Updated: Jun 25
It's no secret that physical fitness is profoundly important for our physical and mental health. But, returning to exercise after lock down isn't necessarily going to be a straight forward affair, even if we haven't succumbed to Corona itself. Laura Oxley discusses the effects of lock down and COVID on physical fitness and how to resume activity safely.
The abrupt closure of gyms and outdoor recreational spaces, and the cancellation of group exercises classes has meant that the usual routes of exercise used by many people haven't been on the agenda for many weeks now. That many people have chosen to continue exercising at home is demonstrated by the surge in sales of home gym equipment seen at the start of lockdown. Others have been taking advantage of the many resources available online including yoga, pilates and HIIT sessions to keep them fit. But there are those who have found it very difficult to maintain the motivation to exercise at home, or who have been unable to due to ill-health , whether COVID related or not. For these people, getting back into exercise and regaining lost fitness may seem like an insurmountable challenge at the moment, and they may not know where to start.
So where do you start? Firstly, there are some key issues to consider if your break from exercise was because you contracted COVID...
How does COVID effect physical and mental wellbeing?
Being ill with COVID has generally resulted in people taking to their beds, even if they have not been hospitalised. This prolonged bed rest has a number of effects on the mind and body, which can start to take place surprisingly rapidly. These include low mood, anxiety, weight loss, muscle weakness and a reduction in bone density due to inactivity and lack of weight bearing. Muscle loss kicks in within a few weeks of immobility, but age is an important factor, and rate of muscle loss is twice as fast in those aged 65 and over. Ironically, the effects are smaller in those who didn't previously exercise as there is less muscle to lose, BUT this also means it will take longer to recover.
Other side effects of COVID are fatigue and breathing difficulties due to the damage caused to the lungs themselves as well as the decline in strength of the muscles required for breathing. Both of these factors will cause COVID survivors to feel breathless and tire quickly on attempting any physical activity. In fact Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation have suggested the early research shows that some people recovering from a severe case of the coronavirus can have ongoing breathing difficulties. The British Lung Foundation has some useful videos here
including breathing exercises if you are short of breath.
What if you just struggled with the motivation to exercise?
A lack of motivation has been a significant barrier to exercise for many people. Perhaps we usually exercise because we enjoy the social side, or we are working towards particular goals - a wedding, or holiday for example. COVID has certainly put paid to these!
Lock down has also posed a big problem for those who usually rely on exercise to help manage their weight. If they would normally burn 300-400 calories doing a particular activity and can no longer do it, then these calories need to be cut from the diet to keep weight reined in - hard to do when you're bored and/or stressed!
So the outcome of lockdown and social distancing for many is weight gain and de-conditioning, but the good news is, with the right approach, it's easy to get back on track.
How to pick up your activity levels again
The first thing to remember is that our bodies are primed to keep us in good condition due to the training we have done in the past. We call this "muscle memory". The cells we have produced through previous exercise are still there, waiting to reactivate. This means it takes less effort to get back to fitness and we progress more quickly a second time around. Having said that, there are 5 tips that will help ensure that progress is smooth and we don't risk injury or relapse:
✅Set yourself a goal!
It is much easier to find motivation when you are working towards something. We are seeing plenty of people in clinic who have deferred sporting events and are now looking to resume their training for these. Equally it might be managing to run around the block or even walk to and from the allotment again.
✅ Start slow!
Muscle memory or not, you can't just pick up where you left off. You will have less muscle bulk and you may also find your technique may be off too. It will take time to build these back up, and the danger of pushing on too fast is an injury which puts you back out of training again. We're already seeing clients coming to us with classic overuse injuries from doing too much too soon. If setting off for a jog seems a tall order at the moment, why don't you try our Sitting Pilates session on YouTube to get you started?
✅ Listen to your body!
If you were unfortunate enough to get COVID, you may find that you can't do very much activity at all before feeling totally wiped out. It would be understandable to feel disheartened, but instead it is important to accept that this is perfectly normal for recovery after COVID. Take a step back, let yourself recover again, and try again with something easier.
✅ Get enough rest!
The immune boosting effects of sleep are well known, as is the role of rest in the repair and healing process. Taking regular rest days in addition to practising good sleep hygiene are fundamental aspects of any training program, whatever you are training for. Read my blog on the superpower of sleep here.
✅ Stay positive!
Pace yourself , recovery is a marathon not a sprint. If you start taking small steps, you may be surprised how quickly your body responds and your fitness returns.
Where does physiotherapy come in?
Physiotherapy has been recognised as having vital role in helping people recover from COVID by the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy. Physiotherapists are trained within the NHS enabling them to gain experience of all aspects of rehabilitation including respiratory and musculoskeletal conditions. These skills are now invaluable helping people who have had COVID or whose recovery from other conditions has been affected by lockdown.
If you feel you need specialist help to guide your recovery, get in touch with us. Our experienced physiotherapists will thoroughly assess you, devise a structured exercise plan to help you build heart, lung and muscle function, and soon get you feeling yourself again.
We are currently offering a special COVID rehab assessment and treatment package, saving you £40, especially designed to work with you and get you back to your goals. If you prefer, or need, treatment at home we are also pleased to offer video consultations or face to face home visits.
Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation Post-COVID Recovery Hub
British Lung Foundation Support for Keeping Active
The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy Keeping Active and Healthy https://www.csp.org.uk/public-patient/keeping-active-healthy/exercise-advice-videos
Please do get in touch if you need help - we offer a free 15 minute telephone consultation and would gladly offer any advice to help get you in the road to recovery. Simply email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 07843424020.
Laura Oxley is a Principal Physiotherapist and co-owner at Omnia Physio with a Master's degree in Manual Therapy. She has over 20 years of clinical experience, 14 of which were spent in the NHS, and has also worked in occupational health and sport.