It’s one thing to consciously take a break from your workout routine, but no one likes being sidelined from exercise due to something outside their control. Getting sick or injured can mean a few days, weeks or months away from the gym are warranted. But after a period of time off, restarting your exercise habits can feel intimidating and definitely frustrating. It doesn’t have to be that way, though, if you have the right tools and perspective at your disposal.
Here, fitness and rehab pros explain how to get yourself back into fighting shape while also putting your health and well-being first.
REFRAME YOUR EXPECTATIONS
As much as regaining physical strength is important, getting yourself in the right mindset to be able to do so is equally key. It’s not fun to realize you’re not as fast or strong as you used to be — and that can be really frustrating for people returning to exercise, explains Kim Chula-Maguire, a physical therapist.
“With my physical therapy clients, I always try to put their current ability in the context of their injury or illness,” Chula-Maguire says. “I encourage them not to compare their current performance to their best ever performance, but rather, to think about the worst day they had during their time off. This could be the first day of the injury or the day after surgery, for example, and then compare that moment with what they did today. If they’re better today on their very worst day, they’re making progress!”
You might have an idea in your head of what you want to do for your first few workouts back. Do less than that, advises Kelly Lease, a physical therapist. “If it goes well, you can always add more activity later after a sufficient rest or recovery period. If you overdo it in the beginning of your return to exercise, there is a higher risk of re-injury or setback, which in turn delays an otherwise healthy recovery process.”
DO SHORT, BUT FREQUENT, WORKOUTS
“For someone who is just getting back into exercise, depending on their exercise history and current physical condition, I would recommend keeping the workouts shorter: around 5–15 minutes daily,” says Michelle Miller, a personal trainer with more than 20 years of experience.
But the old adage that a body in motion stays in motion is true. Because of that, Miller recommends making your short workouts more frequent, especially in the beginning. “I would rather see someone set a short-term goal of 5 minutes per day of low-impact cardiovascular exercise (like walking) than see them push their body to do 30–40 minutes at a time one day a week.” Once you’ve established a solid, safe routine, you can increase the time and intensity.
RESET YOUR GOALS
“Most of us who exercise are very goal-oriented,” points out Kate Ayoub, DPT, a physical therapist and health coach. Instead of reverting straight back to your old goals, consider setting some new ones that feel realistic and reasonable considering your physical status. This helps you focus on the progress you’re making now, instead of what you can’t do that you could months ago, Ayoub says.
TUNE INTO YOUR SILENCE
Getting back to exercise after a physical injury or serious illness may come with a shift in perspective, Lease notes. “There can be a new appreciation for your body’s ability to heal and the tenacity required to recover. This can make returning to exercise or athletic activities feel more valuable, since you are regaining the ability to do things you used to do but could not participate in for a while.”
BE PATIENT AND CONSISTENT
Of course, the guidelines vary by activity, but the basic tenets for success are the same no matter your preferred form of exercise: Be patient and consistent. “You have to avoid the evil of doing the ‘three toos,’” Chula-Maguire says. Those are: too much, too fast, too soon.
“If you’re not patient, you’ll end up out of commission again,” she adds “That being said, it’s also important to realize that the journey back to top form is usually not linear. You may improve for several sessions in a row, and then have a setback. Again, be patient and consistent. If you have a bad day, realize that it’s normal to have ups and downs. As long as the overall trend is toward improvement, you’re on the right path!”
CELEBRATE THE SMALL WINS
Positivity goes a long way in this process, experts say. And while it’s great to celebrate when you reach a major milestone, the small, daily successes are important, too. “It is productive to think about your achievements such as showing up to scheduled workouts, completing workouts, and building strength,” Miller says.
“Being grateful has been shown to increase our mental and physical health,” Ayoub says.
Having an injury or illness is a bummer, but could it have been worse? “My clients who have the best recoveries are grateful for what they have, what they can do, their medical team and their support system. While it’s important to feel your feelings and to mourn the loss of your fitness, activity level or sport, it’s also important not to dwell. Change your focus to gratitude as your recovery progresses.”