Okay so between the stay-at-home orders, pandemic burnout, and shot girl summer you… haven’t done a real workout in forever. That’s okay. Your body is getting you safely through a time of trauma — it doesn’t have to also do squats. “Patience and grace are key,” says Taylor Rae Almonte, athlete, activist, and certified personal trainer. Consider that the rule of thumb for any thoughts about your body right now.
But as the world starts to feel a little more normal, you might be craving some movement.“We get to move our bodies. After over a year of worrying about our health and well-being, what’s better than celebrating your body that has kept you safe, healthy and strong?” says Almonte.
Getting back into a workout routine isn’t just about the physical — trainers emphasize the mental benefits of getting more movement in your life. “Movement really helps elevate your mood for a number of reasons, one of them being while you’re moving, you’re no longer so in your head focusing on all of your anxieties,” says Liz Letchford, Ph.D., an expert in kinesiology and rehabilitation science and trainer for Tonal. Secondly, as the great Elle Woods famously said, exercise releases endorphins and endorphins make people happy. “There’s actually a chemical shift in your body during movement — it doesn’t have to be intense, it can be stretching, it can be going for a walk.”
If it’s been a couple of months (okay several) since you’ve done a real muscles-burning, heart-pumping workout, you might feel like a different person when you step back into the gym or studio. “It’s mental and physical,” says Noam Tamir, C.S.C.S., founder of TS Fitness in New York. “One of the biggest things we’re seeing without people having a channel to exercise is increased stress and high blood pressure. People are not as focused without having exercised for a while. We’re also seeing a lack of mobility and flexibility, less endurance, and lack of energy.”
So yeah, that first workout back is going to be hard. “It’s all about having a positive attitude and setting realistic goals,” says Deja Riley, a MIRROR trainer, and Lululemon ambassador. If you’re feeling reluctant, “start by just dedicating yourself to working out two to three times a week for 30 minutes, or taking a walk every night after dinner,” she says. “Returning to a workout routine doesn’t have to be grand.”
Aside from the motivation factor, trying to dive into your same pre-pandemic workout or class might be a recipe for injury. When Letchford works with athletes with injuries, she looks backward in their training to understand what went wrong. “What I see 80 percent of the time is at some point two weeks prior to that injury occurring, there was a huge jump in activity level,” she says. Say, going from your most strenuous activity being a chill morning walk to trying to power through a high-intensity cycling class or boot camp. “You want to make sure there are no spikes in training. You want to aim for a gradual 20 percent increase in intensity so your body has a chance to adapt, especially if you’ve been pretty sedentary,” Letchford explains.
Here’s the good news: your body will recover its pre-pandemic fitness level fast. With consistency, your endurance level will be back in three to four weeks and you’ll see strength return over the course of one to three weeks, says Tamir. “Yes, you’re going to be sore, yes, you’re going to be tired in the beginning — it’s a shock to the system. But within a couple of weeks you’re going to be feeling stronger,” he says. “It takes a long time for people to lose strength than it’s quick to gain back.”
Don’t. Skip. The. Warm-up.
It’s a non-negotiable, according to trainers. “Diving right into a workout before your body is warm can be harmful, so make sure you take at least a few minutes to get a good stretch in,” says Riley. “Dynamic stretch and myofascial release with a foam roller or trigger point therapy with a massage gun are great before a workout,” adds Almonte. “I always recommend some basic dynamic movements like plank walk-outs and t-spine rotations.”
Ask a pro
“Form is fundamental. I know it’s so enticing to pick up the heaviest weight or do an exercise at maximum speed but the best way to set yourself up for success [is to have good form],” says Riley. When it’s been a while since your last serious workout — and a while since an instructor or trainer has been in the room to help correct your form — it’s worth booking some one-on-one time with a professional, says Letchford. “Even if you’re a little bit off in your form, if you’re doing it over and over again, in all of your reps, in all of your squats, in all of your burpees, it can lead to injuries down the road.” (If booking a trainer isn’t in the budget, there are tons of online resources that can help you check your form — Letchford’s Instagram is full of videos.)
Don’t judge yourself
With consistency, your endurance level will be back in three to four weeks and you’ll see strength return over the course of one to three weeks.
Fact: your body and brain are different than they were before the world turned upside down. Don’t make this about punishing yourself for all the runs you didn’t go on during lockdown or “losing the covid-15” (a term we could honestly do with never hearing again). “Your worth isn’t attached to what that scale says,” says Riley. “Focus on how you feel.”
“Any kind of movement is a win,” adds Almonte. “Maybe it’s a more gentle or low impact activity, or maybe it’s just a shorter session with less resistance. Stay consistent. A workout doesn’t have to be at an expensive gym, it can just be intuitive moving, a yoga video, or a deep stretch.”
Rest and recover
Post workout hydrate, stretch, and foam roll to help prevent injury. And don’t forget to sleep. “It lowers the chance for injury considerably when you have adequate sleep and adequate recovery,” says Tamir.
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