Now that more people are getting vaccinated and restrictions are beginning to ease, many people want to get physically active again. Dr. David Navid, orthopedic surgeon at Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Group Orthopedics & Sports Medicine in The Woodlands, weighs in on what to keep in mind when easing back into exercise after a long break and how to avoid injuries.
It may be tempting to jump right back into doing exercise at your pre-pandemic pace, but doing that can lead to injury — which can also lead to getting demotivated. It's helpful to begin by taking things slow, like going for 30-minute walks to get your body used to physical activity again.
“Take it easy. Don’t overdo it when you return to the gym. Doing too much too soon will overwhelm you, and you’ll burn out. Be honest with yourself and your fitness level; if you push yourself, you might injure yourself.”
Stretching is more important now than ever before. After months of a sedentary lifestyle, stretching is a fantastic, non-threatening, and low-impact reintroduction to an active lifestyle. Not only does it increase flexibility, but it also improves posture, reduces back pain, and prepares your muscles for a workout. Committing to a simple stretching routine — whether you're beginning or ending your workout — can make a world of difference and even help you avoid injury.
Come up With a Simple Exercise Plan
Before heading to the gym, it's helpful to get a physical evaluation first from your primary care physician or physical therapist. Consider it a reassessment of your current strength, flexibility, and cardiovascular health levels. From there, you can put together an exercise plan that suits your current fitness level and lifestyle. Taking small steps and including various workouts that incorporate low-impact cardio and resistance training is an excellent place to start. Here are some activities you should consider.
1. Low-Intensity Steady State (LISS) Training
LISS training is a method of cardio that involves aerobic activity of low-to-moderate intensity over a continuous period. Examples of LISS exercises include brisk walking, jogging, swimming, and cycling. It is a good alternative for those looking to go back into or working toward high-intensity interval training (HIIT).
Pilates is a low-impact exercise that focuses mainly on foundational core strength, joint mobility, and overall flexibility. Having a strong core is a great launching point for easing back into more intense exercise, as this ensures your body has a stable foundation.
Yoga is a practice that focuses on combining physical postures with breathing techniques, meditation, and relaxation. Yoga’s benefits include improved flexibility, balance, and muscle strength. Its focus on breathing and relaxation also helps you be more mindful of your body.
Dr. Navid emphasizes the importance of preparation and finding an enjoyable sport to stay motivated:
“Find exercises you enjoy. If you're struggling with motivation, find a way to enjoy exercise, like joining a class ... Prepare the night before. Prepare your workout gear the night before. If you wake up and see your trainers, hoodie, snack, and water bottle all ready to go, you’ll feel like you’re too invested to change your mind.”
Keep Reasonable and Measurable Exercise Goals
After taking an extended break from exercise, you may notice that you cannot do things you once could. This can be incredibly frustrating for athletes or highly active people and lead to unrealistic goals or complex routines that can only be a setup for injuries.
“Don't be too hard on yourself. It’s easy to compare yourself to when you were training more regularly. If you’ve not been to the gym in months, it’s reasonable to see a decline in strength or endurance.”
The key to easing back into exercise is to set reasonable and measurable goals — for example, it may not be practical to run a 10k yet, but you could try jogging for two to five miles without stopping. Breaking down your bigger fitness goals into smaller increments can help give you a sense of achievement and keep you motivated as well. Dr. Navid points out that every little exercise counts:
“Ten minutes is good enough. It might feel daunting starting the gym again, but stay positive and manage your expectations. You might not feel your usual self, but don’t let this stop you from working out. By doing a little exercise, even if it’s a 10-minute walk, you’re improving yourself.”
It may also be tempting to make too many lifestyle changes at once, which can be overwhelming. Focus on one goal at a time until you successfully turn it into a habit before pursuing other fitness goals.
Know When To Stop so You Can Avoid Injury
During a workout, it can be tempting to push the limits of your physical strength. Should you run another mile? Should you do an extra set? Should you put additional weights on? Going too far can be a recipe for getting hurt, so it's best to stick to your routine and only change it up when it feels like it's too easy. Dr. Navid warns of the pitfalls that come with attempting to work out too hard after a long break:
“One of the easiest ways to injure oneself is to rush the process of returning to exercise, going too hard, too fast ... In fact, it takes only two to three weeks for you to lose that muscle strength you worked so hard to build and just two weeks to lose some cardio fitness ... But listen to your body as you go: You’ll want to push it so that you're gradually challenged but not stressed. That can be a fine line, so pay attention to warning signals such as pain, tightness, or discomfort.”
There's no shame in throwing in the towel either. It would be best if you stopped your workout when you experience the following:
- Lightheadedness. If you feel dizzy or lightheaded in the middle of a workout, this could mean dehydration, a sudden shift in blood pressure, or low blood sugar. This could lead to fainting and can even be a symptom of a heart attack or stroke.
- Sharp pain. Any pain that feels sharp or stabbing is not a normal physiological response. It could mean impinged or torn tendons, bone friction, a pinched nerve, or a muscle cramp/spasm.
- Localized pain. If you feel pain in one specific area, such as your head, neck, back, ankle, or knee, it could indicate that you're moving/exerting something that shouldn't be moved or exerted in that way. It could mean incorrect form or that you're placing too much pressure on that area.
- Worsening pain. If pain continues as you exercise, that could mean worsening damage to an injured part of your body.
- Swelling. If swelling occurs at the site of pain, that could mean your body is redirecting blood flow and other inflammatory factors towards it. This is how your body responds to an injury.
- Painful popping. If you hear something pop, followed by pain, it could mean an acute injury such as ligament tearing or partial dislocation.
Watch Dr. Thomas Parr, orthopedic surgeon at Baylor St. Luke's Medical Group Orthopedics & Sports Medicine in Sugar Land, give tips on how you can avoid aches and pains when starting a new exercise routine: