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Exercising after recovering from coronavirus: How to do it safely

A physician shares how to get back to your fitness level before the coronavirus.

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Rest is important when you're sick, and once you recover it's important to get back to exercise safely.

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Resting and taking it easy is important when you're sick. When I had COVID-19, the fatigue was so intense and lasted long after the worst symptoms subsided. And for a solid two weeks after my first symptoms, my energy was so low, almost anything could make me feel completely wiped. But even when I started to feel better, I wasn't sure when it was OK to workout again. I had so many questions like: Would working out make me feel bad again? Will my energy be gone for the rest of the day? What kind of workout should I do?

And it turns out there's a reason why you may feel rundown and tired even after you've recovered from the virus, like I did -- inflammation

"When your body goes through any type of illness, particularly something as trying as COVID-19, it ultimately comes away weak and rundown, even after your body has successfully cleared the virus," says Dr. Christopher Coller, a physician at Parsley Health. "That's because infections cause an inflammatory response in the body. Cytokines, small proteins secreted by cells in the immune system, and other inflammatory molecules become elevated to fight the infection. This increased inflammation can lead to post-viral fatigue, lethargy, difficulty concentrating and sleep changes."

Now that I'm a few weeks into recovery, getting back into a fitness routine is still a work in progress. But as Dr. Coller points out, getting back into an exercise routine is important for your health, and can even help you recover faster. But it's important to do so safely, and not to do too much too soon.

Keep reading for more info about the best practices for exercising again when you recover, how to know when it's OK to do so, and the best types of exercise that can help you feel better and regain your strength. 

Read more: 6 flu and cold essentials when you're already sick or trying to avoid it

When is it OK to workout again after COVID-19?

Before you consider exercise, Dr. Coller says to make sure that you're getting plenty of sleep first (at least eight hours or more) and have re-regulated your sleep patterns, which often get disrupted when you are sick, to help facilitate recovery. "When you sleep, your brain releases hormones that encourage tissue repair," Dr. Coller says. "During certain hours, like between 2 and 4 a.m., your body's rate of cellular turnover while sleeping triples -- literally accelerating the body's much needed recovery."

Then, you want to be sure that your body has cleared the virus and you no longer have symptoms. You should also talk to your own health care provider if you have concerns or are not sure if you are recovered. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recovery means:

  • You have had no fever for at least 72 hours (without the use of fever reducers), and
  • All other symptoms have improved such as cough, or shortness of breath, and
  • At least 10 days have passed since your symptoms started

So exactly how long will it take for you to recover fully? This is personal and depends on how severe your symptoms were, but there are few ways to know you may be ready to try exercise again.

Read more: This is the cycling gear that will get you back in the saddle  

"As with any viral illness, there's usually a period of progressive and gradual recovery," Dr. Coller says. "This can sometimes go on for days or even weeks. During this time, it is reasonable to re-engage exercise routines, however this should be done gently. For the first few days, perhaps start with light activities such as walking or cycling on easy terrain. If your energy and stamina seem to be doing well with this, then slowly increase to further distances or greater intensity."

Starting small, with short bursts of activity is best. Even if you used to exercise intensely or run long distances, don't assume you can -- or try to -- jump right back in for that matter. You should listen to your body and give it time to readapt to exercise. Remember that being sick took a toll on your body, so even if you feel better, you will need time to recover your strength and stamina. 

"If at any point you feel like you're pushing yourself too hard, it is important to back down to the previous level until your stamina and strength improve," Dr. Coller says. "Everybody is different and how quickly they will recover, so it is important to listen to your body and consult a doctor when any concerns arise."

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It's important to start with slower, gentle exercise like walking while your body recovers.

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Why it's important to start slow

Again, starting slowly with your exercise important is key. Even if you feel "out of shape" from being sedentary for a few weeks, you want to make sure you don't push too hard so you continue progressing in your recovery and that you don't cause further inflammation.

"Some people may be eager to get back into their rigorous exercise routines after having been down with the coronavirus," Dr. Coller says. "However, it is extremely important to take it slow and listen to your body during this time. Pushing too hard could be detrimental to your overall progress. During the healing process, your body is still dealing with inflammation in your lungs and other tissues."

Watch for signs that you may be pushing yourself too hard like shortness of breath, aches or if you feel tired or fatigued.

"Your energy reserves have not yet been adequately restored. The best way to avoid further setbacks due to exercise is to engage in a gradual and progressive way. If you are feeling a little bit more short of breath, tired, achy, etc., these may indicate that you pushed a little too hard. Give yourself another couple days of rest until you try again. Ultimately, this will be a matter of listening to both your physician and your body until you can get back to your previous level," Dr. Coller says.

The benefits of exercising post COVID-19

Exercise provides many health benefits, including boosting your mood, immunity and so much more. When it comes to COVID-19, there are plenty of benefits that can help your body recover from the virus.

"Exercising after you beat an illness helps your body regain strength by encouraging your joints, muscles and organs to become accustomed to a higher level of activity," Dr. Coller says. "Outside of increased physical strength, exercise can help to lower blood pressure, increase levels of mood-enhancing compounds called endorphins and allow for greater amounts of oxygen to circulate throughout your bloodstream -- a benefit of the utmost importance when recovering from a respiratory illness that likely impaired your blood oxygen levels."

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Exercising on the trampoline can help support your lymphatic system.

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The best types of exercise to try when you've recovered 

While any type of exercise you enjoy and feel good doing will fit the bill, Dr. Coller says one specific type of exercise can be beneficial after having COVID-19.

"When getting back into exercise, it's ideal to pick movement that supports lymphatic flow, the fluid that contains infection-fighting white blood cells, throughout the body. Supporting the lymphatic system in recovery accelerates the process of ridding the body of any built up toxins that accumulated while sick and sedentary," Dr. Coller says. 

"Exercise such as rebounding on a trampoline, practicing yoga or even jumping rope or doing jumping jacks can help to kick the lymphatic system into high gear," Dr. Coller says. He also recommends starting with just 20 minutes and work your way up from there. Other forms of exercise that you can try are walking, stretching, jogging or easy biking. 

Remember that starting slow with your workouts will help you feel better, faster in the long run -- so start slow, listen to your body and always talk to your doctor if you feel like something is off during or after exercising. 

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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.