Getting back to normal life after recovering from COVID-19 is proving to be another challenge in itself for many patients.
Exercise and getting yourself moving after any illness is tough, but many coronavirus patients have found returning to exercise is one of the more difficult parts of recovery. Researchers are finding recovering from the COVID-19 virus seems to be a different experience for everyone.
Some people are asymptomatic, others have mild to moderate symptoms while some patients end up hospitalized. Once a patient has recovered and become virus-free, resuming normal activities is also proving to be a different experience for everyone.
“The decision of when to resume activity after COVID is a difficult one,” said Dr. Matt Flanagan, a sports medicine doctor with Allegheny Health Network who is based in Canonsburg. “Before getting back into a regular exercise routine, you should wait at least 10 to 14 days from diagnosis and make sure that you are no longer feeling symptoms from the virus.”
Once asymptomatic, a safe general rule of thumb is to slowly ramp up activity as tolerated.
“You also need to be prepared to not have as much energy or endurance as you did before you were sick,” Flanagan said. “It will take time to get back to the fitness level you had before your illness and you need to have patience.”
What is still unclear is how the virus affects our bodies long term – especially the cardiovascular system.
“Although much remains unknown about the virus, research has shown that the virus can cause damage to the heart and lungs,” Flanagan said. “Unfortunately, we do not have any way at this point to tell who will be affected and for how long. Additional research will need to be done.”
One potential repercussion of the COVID-19 infection is myocarditis, a type of inflammation in the heart.
“This can lead to swelling of the muscles of the heart resulting in decreased exercise capacity,” Flanagan said. “Symptoms can include chest pain, dizziness, fatigue, shortness of breath or swelling of the extremities. It needs to be taken very seriously because, in some cases, myocarditis can lead to sudden death.”
Although myocarditis typically affects those who have had severe COVID-19 infection, it can occur in asymptomatic individuals.
“Due to this risk, it is recommended that athletes who have had moderate or severe infection be seen by a healthcare professional for an assessment to see if any additional testing, such as an EKG or Echocardiogram, is required before return to sport,” Flanagan said.
The best advice is to proceed with caution, Flanagan said.
“For someone with lingering symptoms of the virus, it is even more important to return to exercise under the supervision of a healthcare professional and to follow a slow graduated return to activity,” he said. “The combination of the illness and lack of physical activity can contribute to significant deconditioning that can take time to recover from. For some, it can take months to recover.”
The timeline for recovery to previous exercise levels really varies from person to person.
“If everything goes well, you should take at least seven to 10 days to try to work back to your normal exercise routine,” Flanagan said. “However, if you run into symptoms along the way, it could take several weeks to get back your baseline functional level.”
There should be no pressure to do too much too soon since everyone does respond differently. Recovered patients might want to start with an easy walk or bike ride, while yoga is also a good option because of the breathing practice it entails.
If any of the following symptoms develop during exercise recovery, a person should take them as warning signs, stop exercising and seek medical attention:
- Chest pain;
- Fast heart rate;
- Persistent cough;
- Unrelenting Headache;
- Overwhelming Fatigue.
Flanagan said if an attempt to get back into a normal exercise routine makes a person feel worse, they may be pushing too hard.
“In this case, you should cut down on the amount of activity or take more time off for rest,” he said. “You should be able to get back to your pre-illness functional status; it just may take longer than you want.”