Coronavirus and exercise: what are the rules and when can you exercise after recovering?

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Here are the current government rules on exercise. Plus, a doctor explains when it is safe to work out after recovering from COVID-19.

By Dr Juliet McGrattan (MBChB)

We all know that exercise is good for us and for many of us, it’s a huge part of our lives. However, the current social distancing rules impose restrictions on how and when you can exercise during lockdown. What’s more, the government recently warned that further restrictions could be imposed if people do not follow the rules, which have been put in place to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

So what are the rules? And when is it safe to exercise if you have been infected with COVID-19? How soon is too soon and how much is too much?

Former GP and running coach Dr Juliet McGrattan shares her expert tips on how to make the most of your once-a-day exercise, and when it is safe to return to fitness after illness.

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What are the rules on exercise?

First things first: it is important to familiarise yourself with the government directive on social distancing to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Police currently have wide-ranging powers to enforce social distancing.

Here’s what you need to know:

  • People are advised to go outside as little as possible and only if you have a ‘reasonable excuse’.
  • If you have to go outside, you should practise social distancing. In other words, stay at least two metres away from anyone other than members of your household.
  • You can exercise alone or with members of your household.
  • Government guidance is to ‘stay local’: use open spaces near your home and avoid unnecessary travel (however, police have been told the public shouldn’t be sanctioned for travelling a ‘reasonable distance to exercise’).
  • People should only exercise once a day (however, there is no legal ban on exceeding this in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland).
  • Gatherings of more than two in parks and public spaces have been banned.

What’s not covered? There has been no mention of how long you can exercise for.

Remember that if you have tested positive for COVID-19, you should stay home for 7-14 days.

If you have been struck down with coronavirus, there are a few basic questions you need to ask yourself and some simple steps to set you on your way back to fitness after recovering from COVID-19.

How severe was your illness?

Coronavirus seems to be affecting people very differently, from those who have had a few days with a mild fever to those who have been bed bound for over a week with shivers, aches and relentless coughing. Clearly the time needed to recover from these two situations is very different. We all bounce back from illness at different rates too depending on our age, general health and genetics.

We all bounce back from illness at different rates too depending on our age, general health and genetics.

Don’t put on a brave face, be honest with yourself about how unwell you have been. The longer you have been unwell and the more serious your experience of coronavirus, then the longer it is going to take you to recover and get back to exercise. It’s important to set the right expectations for yourself.

Are you really better?

When you’ve been stuck in bed and, the temptation to throw yourself straight back into exercise can be very strong. You might be worrying about losing your hard-earned fitness or simply long for the fresh air and fun of your sport, however, it’s important to wait until you are really better.

If you still have the high temperature characteristic of coronavirus or you’re still coughing when you’re just walking around the house, then you’re going to need to wait a bit longer. If you can’t trot comfortably up the stairs or have a shower without having to lie down afterwards, then you aren’t ready.

Normally after a flu-like illness, being able to get easily through a normal day at work would be a good guide but we have a new normal so you will have to use your judgment. You should have had at least 48 hours without a fever and your breathing should be back to normal; running up the stairs shouldn’t make you cough. If you have been very unwell, it may be several weeks before you feel ready, just be patient with yourself.

Is it dangerous to exercise too soon?

Even though your intentions are good, it’s best to wait until you are fully better before you restart vigorous exercise. Pushing yourself too hard too soon can be counterproductive. Intense or prolonged exercise sessions can temporarily reduce your immune response so you could in theory, end up being ill for longer.

Even though your intentions are good, it’s best to wait until you are better before restarting vigorous exercise.

When you are ill, your pulse rate is generally a little higher than normal, particularly if you have a high temperature or are a little dehydrated. If you then push yourself with vigorous exercise, your heart rate will have to rise even higher. This can make you feel light headed, reduce your performance and potentially put you at an increased risk of developing harmful heart rhythms.

If you are unsure whether you are well enough to exercise, it’s wise to just wait a few extra days. Pottering around at home, having a slow walk or doing some stretches are all things you can safely do until you feel ready to get back to more vigorous activities.

Steps back to exercise

You might feel as if you are starting from scratch but your fitness will return quickly once you feel better. Follow these steps to help you get back to activity safely:

Make sure you are fully better

See the advice above to ensure you’re well enough to get started.

Take it slowly

Use your common sense and be sensible. Begin with just a short walk. See how you feel and build up gradually from there.

Listen to your body

If you begin to feel unwell again or you felt completely wiped out by the activity you did, then just move back a step and try again with something easier when you feel able.

Rest and recover

Your body has been busy healing itself from illness and when you then add exercise to the mix it’s a good idea to allow a little extra sleep and rest for your body to restore and repair itself.

Stay positive

Pace yourself and take things gradually. It might feel like you’re taking baby steps at first but will be surprised at how quickly you will regain your fitness. Remember that being active will help to keep your immune system in good shape to fight off future infections.

Net Doctor

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