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How Exercisers Still Feel the Effects After COVID-19 Recovery

walking on the road

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Key Takeaways

  • Even with a milder COVID case, it’s possible to still feel effects like fatigue and muscle weakness for weeks after symptoms clear up.
  • Experts suggest taking a "slow and steady" approach, and see recovery as a gradual process.

When 32-year-old Danny Grainger contracted COVID-19 in November, he thought he’d breeze through it and be back to his normally strenuous routine in no time. As a U.K.-based executive of an SEO agency, Grainger managed to lead a very active lifestyle even through multiple lockdowns, focusing on strength-training sessions three times a week, and yoga multiple times weekly, as well.

Then, the coronavirus knocked him down. After he tested positive, he self-quarantined for 21 days, but only had symptoms for about five, he says. That was a long five days, though, with a non-stop splitting headache, wheezing cough, loss of appetite, and aching joints.

“I lost quite a bit of weight, even in just those few days,” he says. “I began to feel better rapidly once the symptoms lifted, but it all slowed me right down. I’m still, slowly, getting back to form.”

Grainger isn’t alone in trying to bounce back after COVID and finding it a longer process than anticipated. Even with an illness that lasted less than a week and didn’t require hospitalization, Grainger needed five weeks of focused effort and steady progress to get back to his pre-COVID fitness level.

Unpredictable Outcome

One of the most challenging aspects of COVID-19 is unpredictability, both with how the virus will affect an individual and with recovery, according to Aimee Ferraro, MD, a faculty member for Walden University's Master of Public Health program, and a researcher on infectious and vector-borne diseases.

“With a virus like the flu, despite different strains, we can still predict recovery timeframes,” she says. “With COVID, we’re still learning about why it can affect people in dramatically different ways from one another.”

Even those who have higher levels of fitness, like Grainger, aren’t guaranteed to come back to pre-virus strength faster than someone who’s been sedentary. Plus, Ferraro adds, lingering symptoms can exacerbate the issue.

“The condition we’ve started calling ‘long COVID’ can cause problems for months past the initial illness, and that can include fatigue and muscle weakness,” says Ferraro. “But no matter where you fall on the spectrum of symptoms, it’s worth paying extra attention to how you recover, because it really does take time.”

Kevin Farmer, MD

It may take time, but you should be able to get back to where you were before COVID. Just focus on going slowly and getting your lung health back.

— Kevin Farmer, MD

First Steps, Literally

The top tip from fitness and medical experts for coming back from COVID tends to be that slow and steady really does make a difference.

“Returning to activities will be different for everyone, but unless you feel 100% right away, it’s not advisable to speed up your return,” says Scott Smith, MD, orthopedic surgeon with Texas Orthopedics in Austin. He had COVID in March 2020 and had to be hospitalized for weeks, so he’s very familiar with long-term recovery needs.

The toughest part for him was bouts of extreme fatigue that made him feel like heading back to bed. Instead, he acknowledged it was all part of the recovery process, and changed his patient schedule so he could accommodate more gentle exercise, like walking outside, with the ability to take short rest breaks along the way.

Focus on Lung Health

Smith’s frequent walks provided another important benefit for COVID recovery: fresh air. Keep in mind that the virus is a respiratory disease, which means it’s key to get your lungs back to optimal performance, says Kevin Farmer, MD, associate professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of Florida.

He suggests working on slow, deep breaths during exercise and starting with low-intensity activities. In addition to walking outdoors, that could be:

If you can start doing activities like those without much effort, Farmer suggests gradually increasing to more moderate exercise. That may mean walking more briskly, biking faster, or using heavier weights. But even then, he cautions against pushing yourself, even if you’re feeling frustrated with how long recovery is taking.

“You might not be progressing as quickly as you like, but that’s normal,” he says. “It may take time, but you should be able to get back to where you were before COVID. Just focus on going slowly and getting your lung health back.”

Get Your Healthcare Team Involved

Even if you’re recovering at a good pace, Smith says it’s still helpful to talk to your healthcare providers about lingering issues that could be problematic in the future. That might include:

  • Anxiety or depression
  • Brain fog and difficulty concentrating
  • Loss of taste or smell
  • Shortness of breath
  • Joint pain
  • Cough
  • Muscle pain
  • Intermittent fever

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, these are all common in people with long COVID, but that doesn’t mean they’re permanent. Some symptoms can fade after a few weeks, while others might stick around for months. In either case, Smith says it’s still useful to keep up with your physical activity, since that can help improve the immune system and build muscle strength.

In addition to talking to your doctor, he suggests bringing in other professionals as needed, such as a personal trainer, physical therapist, mental health counselor, respiratory therapist, or dietitian. Also, connecting online with other people trying to work toward recovery can be comforting, as well, and tap into your network of family and friends, too. A socially distanced walk outdoors can be a boost for both fitness and mental health, Smith suggests.

“You don’t have to do this alone,” he says. “Put together a team that’s there to give you support and encouragement, and that will help mitigate the frustration of a potentially long recovery.”

What This Means For You

If you’re coming back from COVID, people who’ve had the virus suggest taking it slowly and focusing on your lung health as much as possible. Put together a support team of health professionals, friends, and family, and most of all, take it slowly if you want to keep making progress.

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