Returning to exercise if you’ve had COVID-19

Jed Campbell-Williams
Health Adviser Team Manager at Bupa UK
23 March 2021
Next review due March 2024

This information was written in line with the best available evidence at the time of publication.

From helping you get a good night’s sleep, to keeping your immune system healthy, regular exercise plays an important role in looking after your physical and mental health. So, if you’ve had coronavirus (COVID-19), you may be wondering when it’s safe to start exercising again. While some people might find they recover quite quickly, for others it can take much longer. How quickly you can return to exercise after coronavirus will be different for everyone.

Lots of the research around coronavirus - including returning to exercise - is still in the early stages and more studies are ongoing. But here I’ll explain what we know so far and share some advice for getting moving again.

The physical effects of COVID

When you exercise, your heart beats faster and your breathing gets quicker. This is so that your body can take in more oxygen and deliver it to your muscles for movement. But coronavirus is a respiratory illness, which means it mainly affects your lungs and breathing. Even if you’ve recovered from coronavirus, you might find you’re still experiencing symptoms long after the virus is gone. For example, you might still feel very tired, get out of breath easily or have aches and pains in your muscles. Understandably, these symptoms could make getting active more difficult.

Most people who get coronavirus can manage their symptoms well at home, and usually feel better within a few weeks. But it’s possible to continue experiencing symptoms for weeks or even months after the infection is gone. This is known as long COVID.

There are lots of different symptoms of long COVID, and these can come and go. Some of the most common include:

  • feeling very tired (fatigue)
  • shortness of breath
  • aches and pains in your muscles and joints
  • pain or tightness in your chest
  • fast or more noticeable heartbeats (palpitations)
  • feeling dizzy
  • headaches
  • coughing

It’s not clear who is more likely to get symptoms of long COVID. As people who were in hospital with severe illness and those showing no symptoms at all have been affected.

Research has also found that in some cases, coronavirus can lead to more serious complications with the lungs, heart, blood vessels and other bodily systems. So, it’s important to speak to a medical professional before exercising if you have (or had) any heart or lung-related symptoms during your illness. For more information on this, see our information on: When not to exercise below.

When can I exercise after COVID?

When you can start exercising again, and how quickly you’ll feel back to your usual level of fitness, will depend on your personal circumstances. Some people may recover and return to their pre-COVID fitness levels fairly quickly. But for others, just completing everyday tasks like climbing the stairs or making a cup of tea may feel challenging at first. You’ll need to take into account things like:

  • how severe your illness was
  • whether or not you still have symptoms
  • whether or not you had to go to hospital
  • if you have any pre-existing health conditions
  • your level of fitness before you got coronavirus

How to start exercising after COVID

There are currently no official guidelines on returning to exercise after coronavirus for the general public. But experts recommend a gradual, step-by-step, phased approach that’s tailored to your own needs and what your body can do.

Make sure you’ve been completely free from symptoms of coronavirus for at least seven days, and don’t have any of the contraindications mentioned below. Start slowly and gradually increase your activity levels each week so long as you feel ok. Here are some ideas and advice to help you get started.

Wait until you’re feeling better

Coronavirus can impact both your physical and mental wellbeing. So, take your time and wait until you feel better before attempting to exercise. That means waiting until you’ve been completely free from symptoms for at least seven days. And if you need any support with your mental health following coronavirus, speak to your GP for help.

Start slowly

When you feel ready, start with gentle movements such as stretching, breathing exercises and walking, if you’re able. Base how much you do on how you’re feeling and your own abilities - everyone will be different. You could start by aiming to complete small daily tasks like climbing the stairs. Some people find doing breathing exercises helpful. For example, taking a deep breath in through your nose before the difficult part of an exercise, and breathing out through pursed lips while you’re doing it.

Build your activity levels up

Gradually increase how much activity you’re doing each week. For example, once you feel comfortable carrying out daily tasks without getting out of breath, you could try progressing to light activities the following week. This might be yoga, housework, gardening, or walking a little further.

Then, if you feel up to it, you could try progressing to light bodyweight exercises or short durations of aerobic exercise the next week.

Take it one day at a time

Experts suggest spending seven days at each ‘phase’ of your return to exercise before moving onto more difficult or longer exercises. So, it’s important to check in with how you’re feeling every day and make sure you feel fully recovered from the previous day’s activity before starting again. You might feel well one day, and poorly again the next. So, listen to your body, and if at any point you’re finding things difficult, take your activity levels back a phase. Rest some more before trying again.

Eat well and stay hydrated

Some people experience symptoms such as feeling sick (nausea), being sick (vomiting), diarrhoea or loss of appetite with coronavirus COVID. It’s important to top your energy and fluid levels back up before attempting to exercise. Make sure to eat well and stay hydrated so you have the energy to move well and recover.

Practise self-compassion

Try to accept that every day may be different and don’t put any pressure on yourself to return to your pre-COVID fitness level straight away. It’s possible that the time off you needed to recover might have affected your fitness levels and you might feel weaker than before. But remember that your body has been through a lot. Take plenty of time to rest and recover and make taking care of your mental and physical health a priority.

When to stop exercising

It’s important to pay close attention to how you’re feeling when you exercise. Stop exercising immediately and speak to your doctor if you feel:

  • short of breath (that’s unusual for the amount of activity you’re doing)
  • a fast and more noticeable heartbeat (that’s unusual for the amount of activity you’re doing)
  • any pain or tightness in your chest
  • dizzy or faint
  • any symptoms of coronavirus, such as a fever or loss of taste or smell, returning

When not to return to exercise after COVID

Remember that your heart and lungs play a key role during physical activity. So, it’s important to speak to a medical professional before attempting any physical activity if you:

  • still have any ongoing symptoms of long COVID
  • had moderate or severe infection that meant you were bedbound or admitted to hospital during your illness
  • have a history of heart problems
  • experienced any heart-related symptoms during coronavirus, such as chest pain, palpitations, severe breathlessness or fainting
  • have a history of lung disease
  • have lung-related symptoms from coronavirus that haven’t gone away or have gotten worse, such as a persistent cough or severe breathlessness

Your doctor might want to do further tests, including checking the health of your heart and lungs before you can exercise.

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Jed Campbell-Williams
Jed Campbell-Williams
Health Adviser Team Manager at Bupa UK

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