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How to Safely Start Exercising After a Break
It's been a long winter on the couch. If you’re ready to start moving again, follow these expert tips to get yourself up to speed, injury-free.
If you’ve been parked on the couch in recent months, join the club. Cold weather plus quarantine rules have equaled a steep decline in exercise for the majority of Americans. In fact, about 65 percent of people who routinely exercised pre-pandemic took time off from their usual fitness regimens during the COVID crisis, according to a 2020 survey.
But with warmer weather comes a craving to head back out to the trails, track or gym (wearing your favorite workout masks, of course). After a long layoff, though, caution is key for avoiding injury. “When approaching exercise after a long break, there is one secret to success,” says certified exercise physiologist and personal trainer Alexis Batrakoulis. “Start slowly and give yourself time to adapt to this new environment safely and efficiently.”
Lauren Shroyer, a certified athletic trainer and senior director of product development at the American Council on Exercise in Carlsbad, CA, agrees. “When you go out of the gate too fast, you are increasing the risk of injury and extreme muscle soreness,” she says. “Emotionally, you may be setting yourself up for disappointment by reaching for goals higher than is realistic.” Es-chewing quick-fix solutions for a more sustainable approach will help you successfully build “long-lasting habits and goals,” says Michelle Adams, an American College of Sports Medicine-certified exercise physiologist in Indianapolis.
Before you slide into your favorite sneakers or running shoes and restart your exercise regimen, consider these expert-proven tips.
Check With Your Doc
To be on the safe side, it’s best to touch base with your physician before embarking on a new exercise program. “This is especially important for those who were previously inactive, have any symptoms or signs of chronic conditions, or are interested in strenuous exercise,” Batrakoulis says. Your doctor can give you a few health guidelines to make sure you get back into shape safely. “Your doctor’s input will be important so you don’t try any type of activity that could seriously injure you,” says Adams.
Meet Yourself Where You Are
Avoid the temptation to compare yourself now to where you were pre-break. “That’s the biggest trap for those seeking to start exercising regularly again after many months of abstinence,” says Batrakoulis. Don’t expect to jump right back into your old routine, either: Your strength and cardiorespiratory fitness will likely be lagging a bit at first. “There is a risk of injury if you jump in too quickly,” says Shroyer. “That is a hard blow when it sidelines your exercise routine and saps your motivation.”
Ease in Slowly
Give yourself time to build back incrementally—starting off slowly and gradually increasing the amount of activity you do. “Consistency is the key to success,” Shroyer says. “Walk before you run—literally and figuratively.” That means starting with lighter weights for resistance training and low-impact exercise for cardio. Exercise consistently four to six weeks, Shroyer says, before you begin increasing the intensity of your workouts. Batrakoulis advises people to incorporate S.M.A.R.T. goals—specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-based. “This increases your chances of success and keeps you motivated,” he adds.
Do Something Fun
You don’t have to opt for exercise that’s super strenuous in order to reap the fitness benefits; in fact, you’re likely to get better results from something you enjoy and are more likely to stick with on a consistent basis. “You don’t want to feel like you are forcing yourself to exercise,” notes Ad-ams. Choosing an exercise that makes you feel happy and finding a way to make it convenient for your schedule help ensure long-term commitment. “People who enjoy their workouts are more consistent,” says Shroyer. “Find a time of day and an environment you enjoy. If you are working with a personal trainer, make sure they support your love for this type of movement.”
Go Hard, But Not Too Hard
“Lose the no-pain-no-gain mantra,” says Shroyer. “If your muscles are a little sore the day after your workout, that’s to be expected. But if your range of motion decreases and every movement is painful, you’ve overdone it.” Listen to your body and adjust the length of your workout or the intensity until your body adapts.
As you get back into a routine, don’t forget to loop in people who care. “Accountability helps to provide reminders of your ‘why’ to move, and people who care about you can help support you when you’re going through a challenging time,” says Adams. Ask a friend to join you on a run or check out virtual group classes that meet at regular times throughout the week. Batrakoulis suggests getting help from an exercise professional “to avoid risky paradigms and methodologies” and to keep your exercise experience “positive and pain-free.”
Getting back out there may feel like a struggle for the first few sessions, or even weeks. Give yourself a pat on the back for not giving up. “Avoid getting down on yourself for being out of shape,” says Shroyer. “Instead, congratulate yourself for getting in shape, and remind yourself that exercise is the perfect quid pro quo—when you do it consistently, the rewards are always tangible.” The road back to fitness may not be easy, says Batrakoulis, but the mental and physical health benefits of incorporating exercise into your life again will make it more than worthwhile.
The most important thing is to take the first step, even if it is a small one. “Anything is better than nothing,” Adams says. “It’s okay to start slow and build as you go.”