The ebbs and flows of a global pandemic have touched every aspect of our lives in countless ways. And even now that mask and social distancing guidelines are significantly relaxed in most places across the country, we’re not jumping right back in where we left off early last year. Too much time has passed to expect things to just immediately be what they were.
So, why would you expect to walk back into the gym or a fitness studio and do exactly what you were doing before? If you kept moving in other ways while the gym was closed — regular runs or walks, intense bike rides, or workouts with bare-bones at-home gym equipment — you likely maintained much of your fitness. Heck, you may have seen improvements in things like speed or endurance. (If you didn’t have the time or energy for exercise, that’s fine, too!)
But if you haven’t been in the gym or a workout class for over a year, it’s pretty likely those things will feel harder when you start up again.
The most important thing to keep in mind when you return is that it’s OK if you have to take a few steps backward. If your body is a little bit slower, weaker or less flexible than it was before, that’s nothing to freak out about. It’s normal! With a few perspective shifts, you can learn to take advantage of this restart, instead of beating yourself up over it.
Repeat after me: It’s OK if your old gym routine feels harder now
“Working out at a gym might feel harder because you will likely be doing different exercises and using different pieces of equipment than you were during the past year,” said Brit Guerin, a mental health counselor, fitness professional and the owner of Current Wellness in Raleigh, North Carolina. “Your body will take some time to adjust to these new conditions so it’s important to ease in slowly.”
If heavy strength training is your thing, don’t jump right back into the weights you were lifting before.
“My running joke during COVID was that not many people were hitting deadlift PRs in their apartments,” said Kelvin Gary, a strength and conditioning specialist and the founder of Body Space Fitness in New York City. “Motor learning and regaining strength and coordination that you may have lost is step number one.”
On your first few days back, start with much lighter weights at higher reps than you were using before. Focus on proper form, and build back your strength slowly. Check in with your body during and after workouts to see how it feels, then gradually start increasing the weight you lift.
“If you are returning to a group fitness environment, it might feel more intense because people typically work out harder when they are around others,” Guerin said. If you’ve been doing at-home audio or video workouts all year but feel totally wiped out by your first in-studio class, this is likely why.
“It’s important to find classes that strike a balance between motivating you, while also encouraging you to listen to your body so you don’t overdo it,” Guerin said. Your instructor should offer various modifications and scaled-down options for each move, and should never insist that you go harder or heavier.
Take this opportunity to reassess what feels good for your body
Many gym-goers shifted to other, less-equipment-dependent types of movement during the pandemic. The first question to ask yourself is: How did that feel?
Just because you assumed you’d return to the gym when it was possible, doesn’t mean you have to go back. If your altered pandemic routine has been feeling great, just stick with it and skip the gym until further notice.
If you’d rather head back to the gym, don’t lock yourself into your old workout routine just because it’s familiar. “Get curious about what types of movement would feel good to your body as it is today,” Guerin said. “Just because you were doing high intensity workouts months ago doesn’t mean you should pick up where you left off.”
Find a less-intense version of tried-and-true workouts you love, or take the opportunity to try something totally different that sounds fun and realistic right now.
Determined to get back to your pre-pandemic level of strength? It’s important to be realistic about your timeline. If you took a 15-month-plus break, “you’re not going to get all your strength back in three weeks,” Gary said.
If you’re doing heavy weightlifting, it’s also important to go in with a plan for how often you’ll work out and how you’ll progressively increase your load. “You can make a lot of gains in a relatively short time, but you need to have a plan and be consistent,” Gary added.
Remember there are upsides to taking long breaks from exercise
It can be frustrating to struggle through something that used to feel easy, but there are some positives associated with a long break from grueling exercise.
Guerin explained that the combination of intense workouts and high levels of everyday stress can take a toll on your central nervous system because you’re spending a lot of time in fight-or-flight mode. Stepping away from those workouts for a while allows your central nervous system to better regulate itself, which improves your mental and physical health overall.
Another upside of an extended break from the gym is that it gave your body time to heal from past injuries, Gary said. Maybe you had a bad knee that you were ignoring, or a past shoulder injury that never quite felt right again. Taking time off from heavy lifting and intense, structured exercise was probably a good thing. Just don’t go too hard when you first get back, or you might cause even more damage.
Go easy on yourself, mentally and physically
When it comes to getting into the right mindset, Guerin said it best: “Be kind to yourself.”
You don’t have to jump right back into exercise just because it’s accessible. If you’re only going to the gym because you feel like you should or because you feel guilty, you probably won’t enjoy it, which means you’re unlikely to be consistent. Instead, think of your return to the gym as a chance to move your body in a way that feels good, and remind yourself that you can stop at any point.
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