How to Return to a Workout Routine After Illness 

Dr. James Grant

| 3 min read

Mature man squatting at home
The winter months in Michigan often bring a higher prevalence of respiratory illnesses, including the flu and COVID. Those who exercise regularly may find that they have lost strength and stamina after such an illness.
If an illness has put a workout routine on pause, it’s important to ease back into exercise to prevent fatigue or injury. Before re-starting any workout routine, it’s a good idea to consult with a physician or other health care professional to make sure it’s safe to exercise again.

Signs that it might be too soon to exercise

After a moderate to severe illness, physicians advise waiting a week to 10 days after symptoms subside before resuming exercise. However, individuals may be symptom-free only to have symptoms arise again after beginning to exercise. Those who experience the symptoms below might not be ready to resume a workout routine:
  • Coughing or feeling short of breath after light activity or feeling winded much sooner than normal
  • Fatigue or feeling run down during or after workout
  • Muscle aches or headaches during or after workout
This is not a complete list of concerning symptoms. Any symptoms out of the ordinary during or after physical exertion should be reviewed by a physician or health care professional.
Once a physician has given the clearance to exercise, it’s time to resume the routine carefully and gradually.

Slow and steady wins the race

How individuals get back into shape depends in part on the severity of the illness and the effect it had on their health. A few days off with a mild virus has a much different impact than a few weeks off with a moderate case of COVID or flu.
In addition, those with conditions like obesity, asthma, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease or an immune disorder have added health risks to consider before resuming exercise.
Age and fitness levels prior to illness also factor into how a person can and should resume exercise activities. Here are some tips for safely re-starting a workout routine:
  • Start slowly. Begin with low intensity activities such as stretching, breathing exercises and easy walking. People who have recovered from a more severe illness may need to remain in this phase for a few days or weeks. Individuals should listen to their bodies, and not push themselves.
  • Gradually increase level and time of activity. Increase intensity by walking faster or for a longer period. Remain at this level for a few days or more, until it is no longer challenging and there are no symptoms of illness.
  • Use lighter weights at first. When returning to weightlifting, start with lighter weights and fewer repetitions than pre-illness levels. This will reduce potential pain, strain and sprain. Gradually increase weight and number of repetitions according to comfort level.
  • Include time for a warm-up and cool-down. Stretching and light activity before and after a workout is often as important as the workout itself. The pre-workout phase gets the body ready, and the post-workout gives the body time to repair and rejuvenate from the exercise. Resuming a workout routine after a moderate or severe illness can be done safely. Caution is advised, and it is important to consult with a physician to get full clearance before re-starting exercise.
James D. Grant, M.D., is senior vice president and chief medical officer at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. For more health tips and information, visit 
Photo credit: Getty Images

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