Many of us tend to take a break from working out when we go away on vacation or have exams. When this happens, we must plan our return to working out carefully with our instructor(s). The reason: we may need some amount of practice to get back to our former fitness level.

In late March 2020, as the country went into lockdown in the midst of a global COVID-19 pandemic, fitness enthusiasts across India had no choice but to give up working out in gyms, yoga studios, dance studios, even outdoor boot-camps for a staggering four months and some weeks.

If you were one of these people, you must have been excited to hear about gyms and fitness centres reopening in some parts of India from 5 August. (Certain states like Delhi and Maharashtra that were severely hit by COVID-19, decided to keep fitness centres shut for a little while longer.)

The next thing to consider now is, how and when to resume your favourite workout. Here are some things to think about:

1. Were you execising throughout the lockdown?

While some people are able to adapt and keep themselves motivated to exercise on their break from the gym - whether it is because of the lockdown, on vacation or during exams - many are not been able to do so. A study published in the Journal of Sport Science in May 2020 looking into the impact of prolonged confinement found that even two days of living a sedentary lifestyle were enough to trigger muscle loss, reduced aerobic capacity, storage of fat and various other consequences. The Italian researchers conducting the study said that "muscle wasting occurs rapidly, being detectable within two days of inactivity".

2. Do you need to revise your fitness goal?

Honestly reassess your fitness level before you answer this.

As gyms and fitness centres begin to open up across the country, people may be itching to return and make up for all the lost time. However, those who haven't had a chance to regularly exercise may be vulnerable to workout injuries, or may take time to regain the strength and agility that has made way for lethargy and a stressed mind.

Read more: Working out in gyms during COVID-19 pandemic

Here are some more points to be kept in mind as you head back to your favourite neighbourhood gym after a break:

  1. How to recondition the body for exercise
  2. The risk of rushing back into exercise and how to cut back on intensity
  3. How to rebuild your strength gradually
  4. Diet and sleep
  5. How to manage post-workout pain and soreness when you rejoin the gym after a break
  6. Takeaways
Doctors for How to start a gym workout after a long break

If you thought the reopening of your neighbourhood gym is your signal to return to lifting heavy weights or train with the same intensity as before - especially after no training - think again. Just as the human body becomes conditioned to exercise after training for a few days that reflects in increased muscle strength, development and feeling mentally better, the converse is also true.

Read more: Benefits of lifting weights

Some may have taken their training regimes to an indoor set-up and continued to exercise, or modified their training routine accordingly, but many people have not been able to do so, leading to poor posture, weight gain and loss of muscle mass, among other things.

Read more: Exercises to improve your posture

It is important to understand your own body’s limitations; it is very difficult to lose weight or build muscle, but very easy to gain weight and lose the muscle mass you took so long to build up.

A 2013 survey by a private company looking into the effects of long periods of inactivity among professional rugby and American football players showed that they experienced a 40% drop in shoulder strength, along with a 19% reduction in their overall strength levels after periods of 10-16 weeks that involved no training.

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Returning to exercise can be a happy moment, but don't rush into your pre-break intensity levels as this can lead to injuries, which can set you back rather than take you forward on your fitness journey.

Consider this: as professional sporting events restarted in May-June after being suspended for a few months, there was a 300% rise in risk of injuries among footballers participating in the German football league.

Now you may not be training or playing at the same level or intensity as a professional football player, but you too may have lost some of your previous strength and agility. Putting more pressure on your tendons, muscles and joints without proper conditioning could put you at risk of injury. It is important to revise your fitness goals right at the start of your training routine after the lockdown, and set more realistic goals.

Whether your exercise routine involves weight training, long-distance running, running on the treadmill or other programmes, it is important to set new, more achievable targets. Going to the gym twice or thrice a week is enough to begin with, as your muscles would require plenty of time to recover from training after the prolonged gap.

Lifting less than half the amount of weights than you were doing when you left off, reducing the number sets or repetitions, halving the running or cycling distance or cutting back on the speed are ways you can resume training until you are conditioned to increase your intensity.

As mentioned above, resetting your fitness goals also includes easing back into the routine you are used to gradually. One of the first ways you can ensure a niggle-free resumption of your training regime is by performing warm-up exercises to begin your routine. 

It is even better to take a few days to just perform warm-up movements without even heading to the gym; make sure that all your joints and muscles are properly warmed up - you will notice the ease of movement and greater flexibility in your joints. 

Warm-up exercises could be targeted as well. Perform a set or two of push-ups or bench presses with an empty bar before loading up weights on it.

It is also important to understand that the lockdown has not only induced lethargy or inactivity in your day-to-day life, but also led to an increase in stress levels, disrupted sleep or anxiety owing to various factors at home. Prolonged inactivity or fatigue are some of the main reasons for injuries, which makes it all the more important to ease back into a workout routine before intensifying it.

Jumping, skipping or hopping movements are particularly risky, especially while performing plyometric movements or different kinds of body weight and agility exercises, as it is easy to lose balance and twist an ankle while performing them, especially if you haven’t done those movements for a long time. These movements should be limited to once or twice a week to begin with, and built up gradually.

Read more: Ankle injury

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Just as many parts of your life may have been impacted by the lockdown, so would have your diet and sleeping patterns. Months of inactivity may have already led to weight gain or muscle loss, but it may have also resulted in irregular eating habits, which may have contributed to your overall state of fitness.

The same is also applicable for sleep, as one needs at least 7 to 8 hours of sound sleep for muscles to recover and get rid of fatigue in the body. If you are returning to the gym, it is also important to eat and sleep well.

Read more: Sleep during the COVID-19 pandemic

Delayed onset muscle soreness or DOMS is a common muscle pain experienced by people a day after they have exercised. It is quite possible that resuming exercise after a long break may cause a lot of muscle soreness and pain for the first few days, but it goes away after the muscles in your body become used to the workout once again.

However, some people may experience pain or soreness even after a couple of days or rest. If you are experiencing more than the usual soreness or pain, it is important to get it checked by a doctor or go for a session of physiotherapy.

If there are movements that are causing you pain and discomfort after the break, either avoid them or perform easier, alternative exercises instead.

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Regular exercise keeps your body in shape and good health, and your mind free from stress. Of course, there are risks to performing intense exercises after a prolonged gap, but the benefits of exercising regularly are much greater. With a little bit of caution, and a lot of patience, you can ensure an injury-free return to your normal exercise routine.

It is just as important to also follow all the precautions you need, especially during a global pandemic that is still out there. Following all the measures of physical distancing, hand hygiene and keeping the surroundings clean is just as important as you return to the gym to start working out again.

Siddhartha Vatsa

Siddhartha Vatsa

General Physician
3 Years of Experience

Dr. Harshvardhan Deshpande

Dr. Harshvardhan Deshpande

General Physician
13 Years of Experience

Dr. Supriya Shirish

Dr. Supriya Shirish

General Physician
20 Years of Experience

Dr. Priyanka Rana

Dr. Priyanka Rana

General Physician
2 Years of Experience

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