It is hard to overestimate the profound effect SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 has had on our lives. Home quarantine, travel bans, separation from loved ones and upheaval in our work environments all prevent us from doing many of the things we love, including fitness training.
However, our situation has also brought into sharp focus the importance of taking care of ourselves and doing all that we can to stay healthy. Part of that is keeping ourselves in shape by continuing our regular training regimen. It may also mean using the altered circumstances as an opportunity to improve our physical fitness if we’ve let things slide.
Physical Activity Recommendations
How much physical activity do adults actually need? Numerous national and international health organizations recommend at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity physical activity ((e.g. brisk walking) for adults older than 18 years.
Those who are able to participate in more vigorous physical activity, such as running, can aim for 75 minutes per week. It is recommended that you include specific muscle-strengthening exercises twice weekly, as well as balance exercises if you are older than 65 years.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has posted further information on these guidelines, as well as more detailed recommendations for specific age groups, on their website, which you can access here. If you haven’t been exercising much recently, it’s important to work up to this recommended level of activity gradually. More on this later.
The challenge of fitness training in the age of COVID-19
In the current pandemic, navigating proper precautions, including social and physical distancing while exercising can be daunting. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has compiled a series of resources to guide you, which you can view here.
The most important concepts are as follows:
- Maintain an appropriate degree of physical distancing from anyone not in your immediate household (current recommendations are 6 feet)
- Consider wearing a cloth face mask
- Avoid group exercise activities
- Don’t use shared equipment
The American College of Sports Medicine Exercise is Medicine initiative (website here) also has a great list of activities for individuals of all ages and abilities.
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Prioritize Steady Forward Progress in your fitness training
Whether you are adding a new fitness routine to your life or increasing your current level of fitness, it’s helpful to understand the process of becoming fit.
I discuss this in detail in a post on my blog, which you can access here. The take-home message is:
we need to balance our training with periods of recovery so our bodies have time to grow stronger from the training work we have done.
Asking too much too soon is where we risk injury. So, adopting a long-term view of your training is the best route to success.
Frequent, hard or long bouts of exercise without adequate recovery (especially if the activity is new, or if you haven’t done it in a while) will lead to injuries. This will often require time off for healing.
Constant starting and stopping won’t lead to fitness, but it will lead to frustration, disappointment, and perhaps even depression. Aim for slow, steady forward progress and over time, you will achieve the fitness you are seeking and will have the strength, conditioning, and stamina to set new goals and continue to push forward.
Take care of your own body
Whether you are getting back into an exercise program, exercising more frequently or more intensely than usual, or just maintaining your current level of fitness, it is also wise to adopt extra measures to keep yourself from getting injured during these times.
Though many healthcare providers have transitioned to telemedicine or video virtual visits and can still provide care, in-person evaluations are limited to all but the most urgent complaints (which most overuse injuries are not).
Additionally, studies like X-Rays and MRIs that are usually routine are currently hard to obtain, except in emergencies. So, more than ever, prevention is key.
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How to minimize your injury risk during fitness training
To help take care of your body and minimize your injury risk:
1. Work on your flexibility and mobility
This can include things like foam-rolling and other forms of self-massage, stretching when appropriate, dynamic or active warm-ups prior to vigorous exercise, and cool-down activities after vigorous exercise. Do these things every day, or as many days as you can.
2. Work on your strength
Improving your core strength and the strength of your large, prime mover muscles (quads, glutes, etc.) will not only reduce your risk of injury but will also help you become better at your sport. Make sure you are performing exercises with the appropriate form, especially if you are going to be loading exercises with weights.
3. If your body talks to you, listen
I have written about this in-depth in another blog post, which you can read here. The bottom line is: instead of ignoring your body’s pain messages, treat them as useful information.
If something hurts, try to figure out why it hurts. Did you ask too much of yourself on that day? Do you need to improve your strength, flexibility or some other imbalance that put a strain on a given tissue? Thinking of training-related pain as information, instead of as an insult or an inconvenience. This will help you to cultivate the resilient mindset needed for forward progress with your fitness.
Becoming more physically fit is a process
Becoming more physically fit is a process. You will have triumphs and disappointments. However, striving to improve your fitness, especially during these challenging times, is incredibly commendable.
Set short-term, achievable goals and celebrate the small wins. Your patience and persistence will pay off. And you’ll be back to getting after it when sports return to our lives in the way we are accustomed.
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Rebecca G. Breslow, M.D.
Dr. Rebecca G. Breslow is a primary care sports medicine physician in the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery and an Instructor in Orthopaedic Surgery at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Breslow is a life-long runner and successfully competed on the local and regional Masters road racing circuit in the Boston area.
In addition to training in Internal Medicine and Sports Medicine, she is also a USA Track & Field coach and a certified personal trainer through the National Academy of Sports Medicine. She combines her medical background and her experiences as an athlete, coach, and trainer in her sports medicine practice.
Dr. Breslow’s clinical practice is focused on running injuries and injury prevention, care of athletes at road races and mass participation events, and care of track & field and Masters athletes. She strives to empower her patients to take charge of their musculoskeletal health and well-being. She volunteers on the Sports Medicine and Science Committee and National Team Medical Staff of USA Track & Field and is a volunteer physician for many local road races and track & field events. She also provides medical support to the BWH Stepping Strong marathon team.
Dr. Breslow’s research involves characterizing and preventing injury and illness at road races and mass participation events. In addition, Dr. Breslow is the Principal Investigator of the Charity Marathoner Personality Study (ChaMPS), which seeks to identify factors leading to overuse injuries in charity team marathon runners.