How to Safely Ease Back into Exercise

John Christoforetti, M.D., Orthopedic Surgeon

If you took a break from working out last year — you’re not alone. A recent survey shows that 27% of Americans reported working out less often during the pandemic. With gyms closed for a good part of 2020, maybe you even switched over to a different form of exercise, most likely low impact since gym equipment was especially hard to come by for a lot of last year. Or maybe you made a valiant effort at the beginning of last year to keep up with your pre-pandemic workout routine, only to find yourself on the couch more often than not later on in the year.

So now that vaccines are continuing to roll out and restrictions are being lifted, and you may feel more comfortable getting back into the gym, you may be ready to hit the ground running! But after taking a long break from moving and grooving, you most likely will not be able to exercise at the same level you once did — making you prone to injury.

That’s why we spoke with John Christoforetti, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist on the medical staff at Texas Health Plano and at Allen Orthopedics and Sports Medicine, a Texas Health Physicians Group practice. He shares his insight and tips for easing back into exercise safely so you can avoid injury and get the most out of returning to your workout routine.

 

See the Doc — No, Seriously

You know the disclaimer you hear or see from time to time about talking to your provider before increasing your physical activity? Pending any special circumstances, we know you’re most likely not consulting with your physician before starting up a new workout routine; you sign the waiver and go about your merry way into your workout class or your new gym.

But Christoforetti says it’s important, especially after long periods of inactivity or decreased activity, to get a clean bill of health from a trusted provider who knows your health history before stepping into a new workout.

“Participation in a general medical visit and routine health maintenance requirements that your provider may recommend clears the runway for takeoff to a more active version of yourself,” he adds.

 

Assess Where You Are Physically

If you’ve recently seen your provider and gotten the “all-clear,” it’s also important to get a bit of an assessment to figure out where you are fitness-wise. That can be a self-assessment or an assessment by a sports medicine professional, such as the team at Athlete Training and Health located inside the Texas Health Athlete Complex in Allen.

While self-assessment for athletic fitness is a very individual process, some basic tests can help you “benchmark” your current level of fitness:

  • Climbing stairs: Find a safe set of indoor stairs and take note of how many flights you can comfortably climb before you begin to breathe faster or feel tired.
  • Plank position: Holding a position that looks like a “push-up” will be a quick indicator of your overall core and body strength.
  • Body Weight: Note how your current body weight compares to the time in your life when you felt the most physically fit. The more these two body weights are different, the more you may find a mismatch between your prior fitness level and your current fitness level.

Another factor Christoforetti says you should take into account is your age — no matter how young at heart you may feel.

“As our bodies age, the available materials for rebuilding our muscles, tendons and bones as well as the energy available to put those materials to work become less abundant,” he explains. “It takes older adults a longer time and more gradual exposure of the tissues to the force of exercise for the right materials to get in place and work properly.”

 

Understand the “Why”

As Christoforetti mentioned above, our bodies use and move resources and materials to areas where they are needed the most to help us perform and recover properly. But as we slow down our daily activity, our bodies respond by also reducing the amount of energy spent on building and maintaining those materials, such as strong musculoskeletal tissues. The result: a weakening of our support structures, which take a much longer time to rebuild than they did to break down.

“We may think our bones are like lumber since they hold us up and perform so well over our lifetimes,” Christoforetti explains. “But a 2×4 and a bone are very different, indeed! Bones, muscles, and joints are living tissues that change with activity.”

If your activity has decreased over time and you try to throw yourself back into your “glory days,” you have to remember that your bones, muscles and tendons aren’t in the same condition they were when you were living out those “glory days.” That can set you up for injury.

“We most commonly see sore, painful muscles, swollen joints or inflamed tendons,” Christoforetti says. “Less commonly and more seriously, we see tears in cartilage or tendons, or stress fractures in the bone.”

While these injuries are not only uncomfortable, they also prevent you from making the next steps on your fitness journey. The more serious the injury, the more costly the treatment gets, as well, and the more downtime you have to take in order to recover — pushing your fitness goal even further down the road.

 

How to Get Back Safely

Depending on where you are physically, just adding walking more into your daily routine can easily and safely help you increase your activity in a joint-friendly, low-impact and easily accessible way. Invest in some quality shoes and prioritize areas with lots of flat ground.

“If it is an option, simply walking in the water at a local community pool or health club is a guaranteed win for those of us with any joint or back issues that threaten our mobility,” Christoforetti adds.

Slow and steady wins the race — you already know that — but adding some variety also helps get our bodies familiar with activity again. Don’t just stick with one thing, mix it up in both activity and intensity. If you enjoyed a brisk walk or run yesterday, Christoforetti suggests trying something low impact such as yoga or taking a trip around the neighborhood on your bike (or using a stationary bike) today. Likewise, if you did a great upper-body workout earlier this week, give your upper body a rest and focus on lower body later in the week, with some light cardio thrown in between the two days.

Don’t forget that core either! You don’t need to aim for abs of steel, but light exercises that challenge your core are essential to everything you in your daily life and a strong core sets a good foundation for other exercises you do. Try holding a plank for as long as you can and challenge yourself to hold it for even a second longer every day. A modified bicycle crunch targets the muscles in your core that help you maintain good posture, while also incorporating a small test to your balance.

Modified bicycle crunch. (GIF courtesty of LifeHack)

What to Do If You Get an Injury

Look, even the best fall down sometimes. If you find that you pushed yourself a little too hard (we get it, it can be exciting getting back to your old routine!), Christoforetti says first things first, don’t beat yourself up about it.

“We should never feel embarrassed about injuring ourselves while striving for our fitness goals — after all, even Indy 500 cars need to make pit stops,” he says. “Generally, if an injured area does not return to normal within 3 days of a workout-related problem, it’s reasonable to seek medical attention. Of course, if an injury prevents you from walking, sitting or sleeping or if your limbs appear visibly swollen or discolored, it’s best to stop in at an urgent care facility or call your doctor.

Rest is important to recovering after an injury. Take a break and take an anti-inflammatory medication such as ibuprofen. Take this time to focus on the rest of your body and your mental health, prioritizing healthy eating, good sleep hygiene and self-care.

If you’re still itching to stay as active as you can during recovery, Christoforetti adds that you can also ask your doctor for a referral to a sports physical therapist who can guide you in the right direction for staying active while you heal.

With proper attention to sleep, diet, recovery after exercise or injury, and a positive attitude, you can get moving again as safely as possible. And keep at it, even if you can’t attain your goals right away. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Need some extra guidance before you get back out there? Visit TexasHealth.org/SportsMedicine for more information about Texas Health Sports Medicine or to Find a sports medicine physician near you.

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