Editor’s note: Have you been eating poorly in the last year, since the start of the pandemic? Have you become comfortable in your isolation? Are you unsure of how to take those first steps back to a comfortable level of fitness? As more of us are vaccinated and we begin our long recovery from a year unlike any other, The Denver Post wants to help. Today, we’ll be addressing exercise, mental health and nutrition, and what we can do to return to our best selves.
With many gyms operating at normal capacity and health-conscious people getting proactive about fitness coming out of the pandemic — and others starting to exercise again after a lull — health and fitness experts recommend consulting primary care physicians for health assessments and “exercise prescriptions.”
That’s nothing new. Fitness and health experts have always advised doctor visits before beginning exercise programs. But because of COVID, there are new concerns driving that message.
People who have had COVID, or suspect they may have had it, may be unaware of underlying health issues that should not be ignored, according to Sherrie Ballantine-Talmadge, a primary care sports medicine physician at the CU Sports Medicine and Performance Center. COVID can have effects not just on the lungs, she said, but the entire cardiovascular system.
“COVID can cause a protracted or prolonged return to feeling normal,” Ballantine-Talmadge said “That doesn’t just mean your ability to take a deep breath. Do you feel like you’re truly back to your baseline after your COVID infection? Are you having exertional intolerance, meaning you can’t do something that previously was pretty easy for you?
“The next question would be, are you having any additional shortness of breath, chest palpitations? If you have answered yes to any of those questions, you need to talk to your primary care doctor about it. We need to make sure there are not other things that we can see, like swelling of the heart muscles. We need to make sure your system is truly in a place where you can do some exercise. And that when you do start that exercise, there is a gradual return to play.”
Even for those who haven’t had COVID, seeing a doctor before ramping up a fitness regimen after a prolonged period of inactivity is advised.
“It’s important to have an assessment of your body, what issues you may need to consider as you’re either resuming exercise or you’re starting to get ‘back in shape’ after COVID,” Ballantine-Talmadge said. “Just like we write you a prescription for an anti-depressant, we can write you a prescription for exercise. It’s absolutely worth talking to your doctor about. If you call your doctor’s office and they don’t know what an exercise prescription is, that’s when you find a sports medicine physician who can help you.”
Related: Colorado gyms are operating at increased capacities, but some say they need distancing rule reduced
According to a survey conducted by the American Psychological Association, 42% of those surveyed reported “undesired” weight gain during the pandemic. Of those, the average adult gained 29 pounds. Carrying extra weight into a new exercise routine can cause injuries such as stress fractures, back problems and other joint issues.
“Making an individual plan that is appropriate given your previous medical history, and what issues you struggle with, is the key,” Ballantine-Talmadge said. “I would much rather give somebody who has gained a little bit of weight during COVID a reasonable plan to help them achieve their goals so they can work towards health and fitness, versus giving them something that’s not reasonable, that’s going to give them more pain and create injury. Then they’re going to stop. They’re going to give up, and that doesn’t help.”
Ballantine-Talmadge recommends that patients work with personal trainers if possible. Certified athletic trainers will conduct initial assessments taking into account weight and body fat percentages. They also may check the way clients move. Are they walking comfortably? Is their gait off? Do they look stiff?
“Habits have changed over the pandemic,” said Dane Koengeter, personal training manager for Colorado Athletic Clubs. “We’ve been sitting more, or maybe changed our exercise routine, and those habits might have led to some imbalances that are either causing or could lead to painful movement in the future. We’ll help direct a plan so you can start slowly and focus on some of those muscle groups or movements that can help you stay pain-free.”
Neil Wolkodoff, an exercise physiologist and director of the Colorado Center for Health & Sport Science, said people starting an exercise program with a few extra pounds will need to exercise patience.
“No matter how much exercise they do initially, the rate of caloric burn is going to be much slower than what they used to do,” Wolkodoff said. “The body will say, ‘You’re carrying extra weight, let’s slow down so this is comfortable.’ If Martha weighs 197 pounds, that level of comfort is a lot slower than if she weighs 135, so the amount of exercise she gets is probably not going to have the same result per unit of time, initially. There’s almost a 30-day period where you just have to get through the routine and say, ‘I’m not going to see much change.’ I think it’s months two and three when they start going, ‘Yeah, this is working, I think I can go a little harder.’ ”
Wolkodoff has three recommendations for people starting out:
- During your workday, get up and walk around once an hour for 3 minutes to “rev up” your metabolism.
- Go to the gym and lift weights at least once a week (twice a week is better) for an hour.
- Exercise the cardiovascular system three to four times a week with an aerobic activity that is minimally weight-bearing, or non-weight bearing, such as an elliptical machine or bike. Start with 30 minutes at “cruise control” intensity, then take it up to 45 or 50 minutes after your endurance builds.
For those who want to get into a running program, Colorado Athletic Club personal trainer Cheryl Black recommends starting out with combined run/walk workouts for 20 minutes, letting your body dictate how you divide it up.
“Run until it gets too hard, walk until it gets too easy, and repeat as necessary,” Black said. “Go for 20 minutes, and if that feels way too easy, maybe add 10 minutes. That way you can run and walk in whatever combination you need, but you’re not out there trying to grind out miles. You’re going for time.”
When you can run for 30-40 minutes, Black suggests working in some “interval” training, which means alternating bursts of higher intensity with short periods of recovery. Black says you will get in better shape faster if you alternate hard and easy intervals, rather than always running the same pace.
It’s important, experts say, to set realistic goals and avoid being too hard on yourself.
“Let’s take it in baby steps,” Koengeter said. “For some people, this might be a very drastic change in their lives. Or maybe your goal is to get back to where you were. You’ll get there. It will take patience. And it’s important to be proud of the little steps you take.”
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