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Why exercise plays a crucial role in Covid recovery

A woman is running in a park.

For many peo­ple the Coro­na pan­dem­ic is hit­ting clos­er to home. In the last weeks I have come across a lot of Insta­gram posts by run­ners who have con­tract­ed with the virus or who are instruct­ed to quar­an­tine them­selves. And while most peo­ple who catch the dis­ease expe­ri­ence mild symp­toms, many report feel­ing short of breath and slug­gish for weeks after­ward. But you all know what run­ners are like: they want to return to track or trail, and that soon­er rather than later.

I have found sev­er­al arti­cles pro­vid­ing tipps for your come­back after infec­tion. First, the good news: the two go togeth­er, «exer­cise plays a cru­cial role in recov­ery,» as Manuela Callari writes in a piece for The Guardian: «Sleep and rest help your immune sys­tem to fight the dis­ease but it is crit­i­cal to start mov­ing again to avoid fur­ther weak­en­ing of your body about sev­en days after the major symp­toms have disappeared.»

«Everyone’s recov­ery is dif­fer­ent, but over time, every­one gets back to where they want to be.»
Janet Bon­darenko

As exer­cise increas­es capac­i­ty of mus­cles, heart and lungs, as well as the num­bers of mito­chon­dria — the ener­gy fac­to­ries with­in the mus­cle cells — which coun­ter­act the debil­i­tat­ing effects of the infec­tion, she pro­vides a sim­ple guide that can help you get mov­ing again, includ­ing yoga, body­weight exer­cise, and walk­ing. What is impor­tant here is that you don’t push through when you are still feel­ing slug­gish, but grad­u­al­ly allow your­self extra time to return to your pre-Covid shape. «Everyone’s recov­ery is dif­fer­ent, but over time, every­one gets back to where they want to be.»

Paige Par­sons con­firms these state­ments in her arti­cle for CBC: «A gen­er­al guide­line for most peo­ple return­ing to any kind of fit­ness activ­i­ty is to wait sev­en days after symp­toms have resolved, and then to try a 500-metre walk.» But with a view to seri­ous prob­lems like inflam­ma­tion in the heart mus­cle she lists sev­er­al symp­toms to watch for:

  • Chest pain
  • Irreg­u­lar heart beats
  • Short­ness of breath (for a lev­el of exer­cise low­er than your pre­vi­ous baseline)
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Sud­den onset of coughing

If low inten­si­ty exer­cise does pro­duce symp­toms, you should see a doc­tor right away. So, accord­ing to spe­cial­ist Dr Rebec­ca Robin­son, it’s worth pay­ing atten­tion to your body’s respons­es. «If the body is putting all its ener­gy into your high-inten­si­ty ses­sions rather than into recov­er­ing, you can end up becom­ing run down and get­ting some oth­er kind of ill­ness or even an injury because your body wasn’t quite up to it.»

A fur­ther sign of recov­ery: Look at your rest­ing heart rate. «We want that to be back to nor­mal. If it’s two or three beats high­er, then OK. If it’s sig­nif­i­cant­ly high­er – five to 10 beats high­er – then you still need to rest. That might mean an extra week off after symp­toms have gone.»

For­tu­nate­ly, vac­cines con­tin­ue to be the best defence against seri­ous ill­ness and hos­pi­tal­iza­tion; many vac­ci­nat­ed run­ners who’ve been infect­ed have had rel­a­tive­ly mild and short lived local­ized symp­toms. How­ev­er, cau­tion should still be exer­cised when get­ting back into sport­ing activ­i­ties after Covid, as it should after any viral ill­ness. The rec­om­men­da­tions above assume that you had mild ill­ness, and that you have no sig­nif­i­cant under­ly­ing health con­di­tions. Patients with pre-exist­ing car­diac or lung dis­or­ders would be well advised to see a doc­tor for addi­tion­al test­ing before resum­ing sport­ing activities.

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