COVID is not the same as a cold or flu, and returning to physical activity after getting over COVID is not the same as hitting the gym after a mild illness. In fact, research has found that returning to exercise too early after COVID can be detrimental, even causing lasting damage.
How Long Should You Wait?
With different strains and viral loads, everyone’s experience with COVID is different. Safely returning to exercise after COVID will likely look different for each individual, too. At this time, it is considered best practice to avoid exercising while sick with COVID, because too much exercise or returning to exercise too early after a moderate-to-severe infection can lead to myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart. From the point of infection, you should wait 10 days before returning to exercise, even if that means holding back when you are asymptomatic.
If your case of COVID is more severe, work with your healthcare provider before returning to exercise. They may recommend further assessment of your heart or lungs.
Listen to Your Body
After 10 days of rest, it is typically safe to return to light exercise — emphasis on “light.” In your first trips to the gym, plan to ease back into your routine. You may be surprised by how your pre-COVID exercise level leaves you feeling fatigued, but rest assured that this normal.
Initially, your goal should be to move and assess how you’re feeling by listening to your body during light exercise. (A good measure of “light exercise” is one in which you’re able to talk normally while doing it.)
Listen to Your Heart
Another way to track your exercise tolerance is by tracking your heart rate. To find the best range for light exercise for you, follow these steps:
- Find your maximum heart rate by subtracting your age from 220. For example, a 25-year-old would do “220-25=195.” This means that 195 beats per minute (bpm) is their max heart rate.
- For light exercise, keep your heart rate less than 70% of your max heart rate. To continue with our 25-year-old example above, 70% of 195 is 136 bpm. This 25-year-old should keep their heart rate under 136 bpm to start.
If your response to light movement is normal and you experience no other symptoms, then it is safe to increase your activity levels further. But, if you experience any of the following symptoms, talk to your doctor:
- Chest pain
- Disproportionate shortness of breath
- Lightheadedness or dizziness
Overall, remember to progress slowly, listen to your body and be patient! It may take more time than you expect, but slow progress is still progress and should get you back to feeling like your old self soon.
Vanessa Schuster, DPT, is a physical therapist at Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, working primarily in the outpatient orthopedic clinic, and is a lab instructor at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine’s Physical Therapy & Human Movement Sciences program. Vanessa earned a Doctor of Physical Therapy from Shenandoah University and completed her orthopedic residency through Northwestern University. She enjoys running, climbing and being outdoors with her husband and friends.