COVID-19, recovery and returning to exercise

Recovery from Covid-19

As we learn more and more about the virus that has had such a life changing impart on us all over the last two years, we can also think about what we need to do to return to ‘normal’ life. This feels especially important as more of us have now had COVID-19 and it is becoming part of everyday life.  If you have not already had COVID-19, it feels more like when, rather than if.  Many of my clients are catching COVID and have different experiences as they return to their exercise routine.

I think we need to start by considering the symptoms of COVID-19 – as they are broad as they are long, they include:

  • A continuous cough.
  • High temperature, fever or chills.
  • Loss of, or change in, your normal sense of taste or smell.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Unexplained tiredness and lack of energy.
  • Muscle aches or pains that are not due to exercise.
  • Not wanting to eat or not feeling hungry.
  • Headache that is unusual or which lasts longer than usual.
  • Sore throat, stuffy or runny nose.
  • Diarrhoea, feeling sick or being sick.

The time that people test positive for, and their recovery also seems to vary, the common theme does seem to be inflammation in the body.  A negative test after a bought of COVID-19 isn’t also necessarily the end of the effects on the body, and certainly wasn’t in my case.

Whilst COVID is certainly the focus of the moment, it is worth bearing in mind that all of the following experiences could be applied to any particularly tough cold, flu, virus or illness.

My experience with COVID-19.

I tested positive for COVID-19 for 11 days over the festive season.  My other half was ill over Christmas, and I started to experience symptoms four days later. I started with a sore throat with blocked sinuses while I was testing positive, but the feelings of fatigue are what stand out still in my mind. It was likely I was a bit run down at the time, I was tired and ready for a break, I don’t know for sure that this is why, but like many I experienced the fatigue side of COVID for a good month after having my first positive result.

While I was testing positive, I was sleeping for about 12 hours at night and then sleeping for another 3-4 hours in the daytime. I could get up and potter about the house well enough, do some chores, cook and chat on the phone but after a few hours I felt very ready to sleep. After a few days of this pattern, I started to struggle to sleep continuously through the night, but I did feel like I still needed to rest that much so I put on an audiobook and slept as much as I could. I listened to my body and I knew I needed to rest and exercise was far from my mind. I took time off work in the first week back in January as I was still testing positive and even when I had a negative test, I still kept work to online sessions as I didn’t feel I was able to move the necessary kit in and out of my car or stand in the park with a client.

I started to phase back to in-person sessions gradually, but still didn’t feel close to working out for myself. Once I was back up to a full working week, I then started back with body weight exercises, going easy and steady. I wanted to see how I’d feel the next day and the day after as I didn’t want the fatigue to return.

One thing that stands out in the weeks during and after testing positive (other than the fatigue) is that the subsidence of symptoms was not linear. One day I was feeling better and then the sinus symptoms came and went, it was like that for a good few weeks. That’s why I wanted to reintroduce work and exercise slowly. 

My clients and their recovery.

The majority of my clients have now had COVID-19 and as you would expect the symptoms and recovery has varied from client to client.  Some have barely had symptoms and felt fine, whilst others have been quite poorly, and it has taken a while to feel better.  How they return to exercise has also varied by person with some keen to get back to lots of movement and others have wanted to take a bit longer – whichever camp they fall into I am very supportive and want them to feel ready to return.  We start back by slowly, adjusting the session as needed on that day.

I’ve heard clients say that their muscles feel heavy, sluggish or just weaker than normal in the weeks after having had the virus.  It is important to work with this feedback regressing workouts to use kit like a suspension trainer (TRX) to give extra help and confidence with performing movements. Reducing the weights down temporarily or removing them altogether in the first few sessions back.

Where clients have had respiratory issues I’ve slowed everything right down and offered stretch or Pilates styled sessions instead, so that they build back up really slowly and in a controlled way. Even gentle movement might feel challenging to some but happily none of my clients have been particularly badly affected by the virus.

How to safely return to exercise post illness

  1. Keep a daily symptom diary – note how much activity you are doing, include anything from doing the housework, walking the dog, to a formal workout. A couple of lines each day about how you are feeling, what you have been doing and for how long will help to highlight if particular things are contributing to feeling drained.
  2. Listen to your body and your internal dialogue – if you don’t feel like exercising then don’t push though something that doesn’t feel right. If words like ‘should’, ‘need’ or ‘ought’ are there to do any particular activity, I would take that as a sign that you probably need to rest for longer.
  3. Prioritise sleep – resting will take help to take stressors out (which can be read, in this example, as inflammation in the body). As we know from last month’s blog post – ‘Using exercise to manage stress’ (INSERT LINK) ongoing high levels of stress can lead to an overexposure of cortisol, adrenalin and other stress hormones, can disrupt almost all of our body’s processes.
  4. Go slow – when you do feel up to a workout then regress movement just for a few sessions, the risk of over doing it and setting your recover back versus a few lighter sessions is a no brainer. Stop if you need too.
  5. Expect to adapt – expect that one day you are going to feel better and the next might not be the same, recovery may not be a linear process. There are going to be ups and downs recovering from any illness and adapt as you go.

If you would like help returning to fitness after a bout of illness please do get in touch.

Sara McDonnell

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