Return to Physical Activity After Time Away (Or Quarantined!)

July 2nd, 2020
Physical Activity

For the physically active, the COVID-19 quarantine has thrown a substantial roadblock to training, achieving goals, and staying active and moving. Many of us have had our activity levels plummet, seeing an overall increase in inactivity and sedentary lifestyles. As gyms and workout facilities begin to reopen, many of us are eager to return and rush right back to our prior activity levels – moving the same weight in the gym, running the same pace per mile, sprinting/cutting/jumping at the same intensity on the field. Other the other hand, others may be wary about returning to physical activity unsure where or how to resume for fear of injury. To help guide you back to your desired physical activity, continue reading for tips on how to safely return to activity.

Effects of Time Away from Physical Activity (Detraining)

Inactivity and sedentarism have multiple detraining effects that greatly impact the human body (Narici, et al 2020). Muscle loss can be detected in as little as two days of inactivity, which is accompanied by decreases in the strength of ligaments and tendons. Lack of activity (especially strength training or weight-bearing exercises and activities) also leads to decreases in bone density. Our bodies also lose the ability to effectively circulate blood and oxygen to our muscles, decreasing our aerobic capacity that limits how long we can stay physically active in one exercise bout. With sedentarism the calories we eat tend to be more than the calories we are burning with activity resulting in more fat deposition that further accelerates muscle loss (ending up in a vicious cycle!). All together, these consequences of extended time away from physical activity present more of a risk for injury upon doing “too much too soon”. But there is GOOD NEWS! Having a structured, systematic approach will help to reverse the effects of detraining and significantly decrease the risk of injury, getting back to the activities that make you YOU!

Keep It Gradual

We exercise, workout, run, or whatever we do to stay active to see results. And we want these results NOW! Returning to physical activity from time away requires making your triumph return gradually (Bowen, 2020). Gradual progressions come in many forms – lower weight/less reps/less sets at the gym, lower distances/times or slower paces while running, less intense workout classes. The key is the initial return has to be less than where you left off, slowly working your way back to your previous level.

One way to self-monitor the intensity of each workout is Rating of Perceive Exertion (RPE). RPE is a scale 1-10 that allows us to rate how difficult specific activities/workouts are, with 1 being very light activity (watching TV) to 10 being maximum effort (unable to breathe, cannot continue activity). Exercise should be moderate to vigorous without working beyond exhaustion.

While lifting weights, using repetitions-in-reserve (RIR) also helps to self-monitor the intensity while strength training. RIR is estimating how many more repetitions could have been done during a particular set, which is surprisingly accurate to within 1-rep when researched! Having feel like you have 2-3 RIR is a good target zone to strength train to avoid absolute failure and fatigue to decrease the risk of injury.  

Adequate Warm-Up 

Preparing our bodies and elevating our core temperature for activities has many benefits, none more important that injury prevention. Engaging in movements similar to what will be done during a workout, increases blood flow and prepares our muscles, tendons, ligaments, and joints to more efficiency perform. Warm-ups do not need to be unnecessarily long to be effective (5-10-minutes) and can include: light ride on elliptical/stationary bike, dynamic stretches, or jumpingIncorporating a combination of stretching/mobility work, core stability, balance, and light strengthening makes for a well-rounded warm-up helping to decrease the risk of injury. 

Recovery, Sleep, Nutrition 

Often overlooked and underestimated, recovery, sleep, and nutrition are paramount not only while returning to physical activity, but also in achieving any fitness goal. The day after a heavier strength training session, a more intense run, or a harder workout requires adequate active recovery. Recovery does not necessarily mean complete rest, but rather doing a light workout/exercise to allow our bodies to replenish energy stores and repair our muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones. Active recovery in the form of stretching, foam rolling, core stability, a brisk walk, a bike ride, or anything that keeps you moving will also help to decrease muscle soreness and further prepare you for your next workout. 

Sleeping 7-8-hours each night also allows our bodies to better recover from working out. The body is most active in repairing itself while sleeping, making sleep all the more important the nights before and after working out.  

Lastly, nutrition consisting of lean proteins and fruits and vegetables fuels our bodies to provide the necessary energy required while working out. Eating a well-balance diet also aids in the recovery process to provide the necessary nutrients to build healthy and strong muscles and bones. 


Listening to your body is vital to gauge your return to physical activity. Working through pain leads to the inevitable injury and worsening of pain resulting in more time away from the activities you love causing more the previously mentioned detraining consequences. Now is the best time to take care of the nagging aches and pains acting as roadblocks to increasing your level of physical activity. Oftentimes, under the guidance of any one of our physical therapists, you can still be physically active with modifications despite the presence of pain or injury!  

Contact any one of our physical therapy offices to address any aches and pains and to receive an individualized plan to guide you on the road to your journey back to a physically active lifestyle! 



Narici M, De Vito G, Franchi M, Paoli A, Moro T, Marcolin G, Grassi B, Baldassarre G, Zuccarelli L, Biolo G, di Girolamo F, Fiotti N, Dela F, Greenhaff P, Maganaris C. Impact of sedentarism due to the COVID-19 home confinement on neuromuscular, cardiovascular, and metabolic health: Physiological and pathophysiological implications and recommendations for physical and nutritional countermeasures. European Journal of Sport Science. 2020. 

Bowen L et al. Spikes in acute:chronic workload ratio (ACWR) associated with a 5-7 times greater injury rate in English Premier League Football players: A comprehensive 3-year study. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 2020 Jun;54(12):731-738. Doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2018-099422. Epub 2019 Feb 21. 

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