5 Tips for Safe Exercising During a Pandemic
The physical and mental benefits of working out are essential during a pandemic to stay healthy. But finding ways to work out while gyms are closed can be a challenge. Without the wide variety of equipment and familiarity of a local gym, many people may feel uncertain about how to social distance and maintain an exercise routine.
Luckily, while we're all restlessly waiting to get back in the gym, there are some safe exercises you can do in the meantime. This article will discuss some of your COVID-19 exercise options, how to exercise safely during the pandemic and how to practice gym safety once your local gym opens back up.
Why is Exercise Important During a Pandemic?
Although it might be tempting to sit on your couch all day binge-watching the latest Netflix series while sheltering in place, exercising to stay healthy is as crucial as ever during a pandemic. Research shows that staying active helps protect your body from diseases like influenza, pneumonia and other infections by bolstering your immune system. By supporting your immune system, moderate exercise can reduce inflammation, positively influence your gut microbiome and increase the presence of innate immune cells in your body.
Exercising is especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic because regular exercise can boost your body's ability to regulate its immune system, which is critical in fending off the severe symptoms of COVID-19 that stem from immune system over-reactions. It's important to note, however, that exercising will not make you immune to contracting COVID-19.
The best way to guard yourself against the outbreak is to follow the guidelines set out by the government, but supplementing these practices of good hygiene with routine exercise may help you to remain healthy throughout the pandemic.
Along with the physical benefits of exercise, sticking to a regular exercise regimen during this time could have some psychological perks. Studies have found that there is a strong link between physical activity and mental health, with those who exercise experiencing fewer mental health problems than those who do not. Additionally, scheduling a specific time to exercise can help you build a routine and maintain some sort of normalcy while surrounded by uncertainty.
Although you may be eager to help out your immune system, sudden spikes in intense physical exercise can actually tear down your body's defense systems and lead to injury, so try to slowly start incorporating exercise into your day. Start with an activity suitable with whatever level you're at and work up to something more challenging, like running a marathon or conquering Mount Everest from your living room.
The good news is you don't have to do an extensive amount of exercise to see these gains. Research shows that doing something active, such as running, biking or walking, for even less than an hour can have a positive impact on your immune system. In fact, just one workout has been shown to benefit your immunity against infection, and consistent workouts compound these benefits.
How to Exercise When the Gym is Closed
You might be sold on the benefits of exercising, but unsure how to workout at a time when gyms, parks, fitness studios and many other public places are closed. Aside from those closures, exercising outside might not be a dependable option due to social distancing concerns, inclement weather or strict shelter in place orders. Finding time to exercise might also be an issue if you are now looking after your children at home or working odd hours.
Luckily, there are enough safe, fun and effective ways to stay active during a pandemic — everyone is bound to be able to find an option that suits their circumstances. Here are five tips to help you get the most out of your pandemic exercises without ever stepping foot inside a gym:
1. Take Advantage of the Great Outdoors
Naturally, the first option for working out when there aren't any gyms open is to get outside. As long as you're not gathering in large groups or going to overly crowded places, there's nothing wrong with an open-air workout. In fact, making use of the outdoors is the perfect way to stay active while being socially distant.
Running might be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of exercising outside, but there are many other outdoor activities that keep you moving, like cycling, hiking and walking. As a bonus, getting some fresh air after being stuck inside your house all day will clear your lungs and refresh your mind.
If you're new or not used to these types of cardio-based exercises, try breaking your overall workout time up into smaller, shorter sessions. For example, instead of walking for 30 minutes straight, do three 10-minute laps around your neighborhood with a pause in between to catch your breath — it'll be just as effective, but more manageable.
It's easy to get swept up in the runner's high, but first-time runners should be careful to take things at their own pace and ease into the sport to avoid common overuse injuries, like shin splints and runner's knee.
2. Get Digital
There are tons of workout videos out there for you to follow along with, whether you bust out your old jazzercise VCR tapes or stream a more modern workout. There are many fitness companies that offer online workout video services, so you'll be able to find one that suits your exercise preferences, whether you love yoga, Pilates, barre, cardio kickboxing, strength training, dance or a different method of getting moving. Even within these different categories, there can be many variations for you to choose from based on your experience level, available equipment and amount of free time.
These virtual workouts offer all the perks of having an elite personal trainer pushing you without anyone actually watching you struggle through the sweat. Additionally, working out alongside the other people in the video will make you feel as if you're a part of a team and help keep you accountable for showing up to work out consistently.
Trying new classes and techniques that you've never done before can be a lot of fun, but be careful when experimenting with new moves. Focus on maintaining good form, so you don't injure anything. And if you're not sure how much weight to use for an exercise, start light and adjust as necessary to save yourself from straining a shoulder or throwing out a hip.
3. Participate in a "Live" Class
Another digital version of working out that you could choose is taking a virtual class in real time with an instructor and other class members. Many fitness studios and personal trainers are offering virtual classes for those stuck at home. Signing up for one of these classes is a great way to stay active, interact with other people and be social, which might motivate you to keep showing up and sticking with your fitness regimen even on days that you don't feel like exercising.
As an extra benefit, you can support your local fitness studios by participating in these classes. If none of the class times work with your schedule, some personal trainers are offering private virtual classes, so you'll be able to customize the meeting time and type of exercise to your exact needs and preferences.
Although virtual exercise classes are a great way to stay active and even get a bit of human interaction while practicing social distancing, be careful that you choose a class suitable for your experience level. You may be able to see the instructor well on your screen, but they will not be able to walk around correcting everyone's form to ensure safe technique as they usually would.
If you're worried about injury from poor form, take a one-on-one class with a personal trainer. Having that individualized attention will allow you to make sure you're not doing any motions that put your body at risk. If hiring a personal trainer is not a viable option for you, simply be mindful whenever trying a more challenging class or a new form of exercise, which could lead to injuries from unfamiliar movements, such as knee sprains or ligament tears.
4. Scour Social Media for Fitness Inspiration
If you don't have the money, equipment or living room space to sign up for a digital exercise class, try searching the Internet for exercise circuits that better suit your situation. Social media sites like Pinterest and Instagram are full of workout suggestions to suit your circumstances and resources. From public park workouts to strictly bodyweight circuits, there's an exercise plan for everyone online.
If you don't find a circuit that particularly calls to you, don't be afraid to mix and match some exercises, pulling from various circuits to create your own custom circuit. For example, if you have some weights, but none are heavy enough to provide a challenge, you can follow a largely bodyweight-based workout and incorporate some lighter weighted exercises.
Most of us have some dumbbells lying around at home, but not nearly as much weight variety as the gym. Be smart about choosing circuits that suit the weights you have. Save yourself from injuries like shoulder tears by not forcing yourself to lift too heavy because that's the only size weights you have.
5. Set Goals
Setting goals is a great way to keep yourself motivated in sticking with your workout regimen. Goals allow you to stay focused and push yourself to be better than the day before. Make sure you're setting goals that actually challenge you — an easy goal won't inspire you to push yourself or give you the same sense of accomplishment once you achieve it. Pick a goal that means something to you, whether it be running a certain distance in a certain time, doing a specific number of push-ups in a row, mastering a difficult yoga pose or simply exercising a certain number of days per week.
Once you've decided on your goal, make a realistic plan for working toward it. If it's a more long term goal, build in some mini rewards along the way to recognize how far you've come and keep yourself motivated to keep going. Be intentional about putting in the effort to realize your goal, and you'll reach it before you know it.
Dreaming of big goals is important, but make sure your progression is practical. If you try to push too hard too early in your fitness journey, you could encounter an injury that will set you back even further in the pursuit of your goal. Remember that overuse and overtraining are two of the leading causes of athletic injuries.
How to Exercise Safely Once the Gym Reopens
As different areas of the country start to reopen, gyms near you may begin to welcome back guests. The decision of whether you should or should not go to your gym the first day it reopens is completely up to you and what you feel comfortable with. If you feel safer continuing your at-home workout routine for a bit longer, there's nothing wrong with sticking with what's been working for you.
But, if you do plan on being one of the first ones at your gym's doors, here are some tips on how to exercise safely and stay healthy while heading back to the gym:
- Wear a mask: Yes, it might be annoying to wear a mask while working out, but it's worth it. Keep in mind that somewhere between 25% and 50% of infected individuals may have the virus and transmit it without displaying any symptoms themselves.
- Go during off-peak hours: Try to go to your gym when you know it'll be less crowded, such as early morning, late morning or later in the evening. If you plan your workout for an off-hour, you'll both cut down on health risks and have more machines and weights available to use.
- Wipe down the equipment: Be extra careful about wiping down the gym equipment you use both before and after using it. Whenever we workout, our sweat tends to get all over anything we touch, so be diligent in cleaning equipment before you use it and be considerate in cleaning it after you're finished with it.
- Avoid classes: Even after officials let up on social distancing rules, try to hold off on going to any in-person fitness classes because they tend to be held in smaller spaces, putting you in tight quarters with other sweaty people.
Once cases of COVID-19 are really down, and we've reached the descending side of the disease curve, you can feel safer jumping back into the fitness studio. As you begin taking exercise classes again, make sure that the classrooms they're held in are in alignment with these guidelines:
- Masks: Instructors should be wearing masks so that when they speak to the class, no germs are passed through the air. To be extra cautious, you could also wear a face mask during the class to minimize your chance of being exposed to the virus.
- Spacing: Make sure the class isn't too crowded and there aren't so many people that the class members are unable to easily keep their distance from each other.
- Ventilation: Aim for a classroom that is well-ventilated, so that the air is not stagnant. Opening windows and doors as well as using a fan are good ways that studios can promote airflow.
How to Prevent Injuries When Returning to the Gym
The worst thing you could do once your gym finally reopens is to get too excited, attempt to do too much and injure yourself, causing you to miss even more months in the gym. To prevent these easily avoidable injuries, practice these four rules for safe exercising when returning to the gym:
1. Warm Up Thoroughly
Warming up is always an important part of injury prevention, but it's especially important when attempting moves you haven't done in a while. Even if you regularly exercised throughout the whole pandemic, your body will be put through different movements at the gym. Although you might have been an experienced gym enthusiast before the pandemic, there are probably certain movements that your body hasn't done in months and may not be used to anymore.
To protect your muscles and tendons from injury due to tightness, overextension or twisting, take the time to warm up before starting your workout. A proper warm-up doesn't have to be long — it just has to be enough to get the blood flowing and to wake your muscles up. If you skip these steps and dive right into your workout, trying to get your muscles to cooperate will feel like stretching a cold, stiff rubber band.
2. Start Slowly
The first time you go to the gym after it reopens will be your first time at a gym in a long time, so be careful not to overdo it. You might not be able to lift the weights that you were lifting before the pandemic, and that's okay. Start at a lower weight and work your way up — there's no need to be a hero.
Don't be too hard on yourself, and recognize that even if you're not able to squat as much as you had been, you may have made gains in other areas. For example, you might be able to do more pull-ups if all you did was bodyweight exercises while the gym was closed. Keep things in perspective, and be patient with yourself as you work back up to where you were.
Once you've become familiar with your old gym routine again, it may be tempting to immediately jump back up to heavier weights and start testing your limits again. Lifting more than what your body is ready for could shock your muscles, leading to tears and other injuries. Increase the intensity on a weekly basis, as opposed to all at once, so your body has time to adjust to managing the additional stress.
3. Work With a Personal Trainer
Getting reacquainted with the gym might go more smoothly if you have a personal trainer there to guide you through your transition back. A personal trainer can help assess your starting point and create a safe, effective fitness plan to get you to where you want to be. Depending on your personal goals — muscle building, weight loss or aerobic fitness — your trainer can create a custom plan to reach them.
A good trainer will assist you with proper form as well, saving you from doing motions that could injure you. After a few hour-long sessions, you may feel confident and comfortable in the gym again and able to manage on your own, at which point you can stop taking personal classes.
4. Pay Attention to Your Body
Many of us are taught to push through pain to get stronger, but not all pain is harmless. Although your workout should be difficult enough to challenge you, you should never feel pain while exercising. If you do feel yourself cramping up or tweaking a muscle the wrong way, stop immediately and correct your form or reduce the weight that you're lifting until you're ready to handle more.
This goes for sickness, too. You should always avoid placing additional unnecessary stress on your body while it's trying to heal itself, and you should be especially cautious of exercising while sick in the middle of a pandemic. Because exercise breaks down your muscles and stimulates an immune response, it is best not to exercise if your immune system is already fighting to protect your body from sickness.
Overtraining can be equally as harmful to your body as not working out at all. So even though you're excited to be back in the gym after so long, be smart and treat your body with kindness, knowing when to rest.
Even the most careful athletes get injured sometimes. If you ever injure your shoulder, hip, knee or elbow while working out, visit Dr. Mufaddal Gombera to get back on your feet and doing the sport you love again as soon as possible.
Dr. Gombera provides patients with the personalized expert care they need at his practice at Fondren Orthopedic Group and Texas Orthopedic Hospital, just south of the Texas Medical Center. By using advanced treatments and minimally invasive techniques, Dr. Gombera helps athletes recover quickly and avoid surgery whenever possible.
If you're suffering from a sport-related shoulder, hip, knee or elbow injury, contact Dr. Gombera today to schedule an appointment and be back to your active lifestyle before you know it.