"Whip" is probably not the right approach after a long time sitting under quarantine
The two professionals I'm currently working with right now to get myself back into fighting shape, as it were, are neither of them youngsters. My trainer is 40, so just beginning middle age. My chiro is 48, about the midpoint. I'm 68, and female, so we cross a number of age ranges in terms of being athletic and committed to being in shape for life. That said, many if not most of us, outside professional athletes, are likely eyeballing their bodies with a wry eye as we consider what nearly a year inside, or sitting, or both, has done to our once-svelte (or at least healthier) selves.
In the last several weeks we've been ramping up my program as I return to full workouts. I've been interviewing them both about what they're seeing as their clients return or as new ones present themselves. Often they show up with a few more unwanted pounds and unexpected aches, pains and injuries as their impatience to return to pre-Covid shape inspires them to take out the cat o' nine tails on their bodies.
"Not a good move," says Dr. Plummer, my sports chiro. He emphasized that for every pound we gain, especially in belly fat, the spine experiences four times that strain. "But here's the real kicker that makes this even more damaging, " he explained. "The body experiences six times that weight on our joints when we do high-impact exercise, like running or aerobics."
That's a huge stress on our joints. As we age, and if you, like me, are a lifetime bodybuilder and have been active, chances are good that we might have a bit of overuse, wear and tear if not arthritis in some of our joints. Inactivity isn't kind to older bodies, as movement is music to the body's WD-40: synovial fluid.
So again, if we do the math, if you and I gain fifteen pounds from Covid and have been sitting a good long time, that means that when we hit the trails again to run, we are pounding our poor knee and hip joints with an additional ninety pounds every time our feet hit the ground.
Not only that, he says, if you and I make the mistake of thinking we can run as far and as fast as we did pre-Covid, with nothing in the middle, we're setting ourselves up for a trip to the emergency room.
Ryan, my trainer, has been giving me a series of very difficult, multi-dimensional exercises which focus both on core strength/balance as well as pure muscle strength. I told him that when I first sat on the abductor and adductor machines, I was righteously shocked at how hard it was to push weights fully forty pounds less than I was used to. Our gyms have been closed for months, and while I've been exercising, these particular machines weren't available.
He wasn't surprised. He told me to be super patient, and see how fast the strength came back. Two weeks later, I'm almost back up to my original weight. At 68, this is excellent news, because so many of us assume that the older we get, the faster we deteriorate.
Both Ryan and Dr. Plummer argue that this might be true if you don't work out at all. Age-related muscle loss, or sarcopenia, begins in our mid-twenties and continues until we are crippled by loss of muscle- but only if we fail to do anything about it.
The most excellent news for any and all of us is that first, if we had strength, we can get it back, and second, any time we take a long hiatus, we must start at a much lower demand to get that process going. Plummer emphasizes that the moment you and I feel pain, we need to STOP. Right then, particularly if this is the first time we have exercised in a while.
The body doesn't just need a warmup. We need to allow ourselves both a warmup and a ramp up back to our pre-Covid fitness levels.
A woman wrote me recently that after some months of inactivity, out of boredom she ordered yoga videos. "I nearly killed myself," she wrote, not without humor. It's a good lesson in giving ourselves the grace to have slipped a bit.
Rather than slip a disc, or worse, by asking far too much too soon, Ryan suggests walking before running, and cutting the distance way back. Watch where you get winded. If you run, and you can handle it, mind your joints if you've gained some pounds. If you feel pain or aches, walk instead.
Popping or odd sounds in your joints? That's a sign that something is wrong. And it's not time to push past the pain. The old saw of "no pain no gain" does not apply when it comes to returning to exercise after a long layoff. If you have pain, first, back off, and if it persists, seek medical care. Lots of things can change and shift during inactivity.
I've been around long enough and done enough of the kinds of extreme sports (skydiving, horse riding, kayaking, hiking, biking, etc.) where injuries are almost guaranteed. Long periods of inactivity mean that where I have injured can bark, stiffen or seize up. Regular movement, even just walking, can go a long way towards ensuring that the body is able to swiftly recover. Where I've had very serious injuries like a broken back or broken pelvis, I've hit the gym pool to do laps on the shallow end for an hour at a time. The lack of impact allows the joints to work without causing pain, and it's fun. While many pools may still be closed due to Covid, if you can get to one, that's a perfect place to start if you're sore.
Both Plummer and Ryan emphasize that stopping movement completely is the worst possible thing to do, even though your body's soreness may make you feel like hiding under the blankets. It may well be simply saying, let's please play, or, if you pushed a little too hard, "What on earth were you thinking?"
You might have lost a step, maybe more, and gained a pound, maybe a lot. Rather than be angry at your body, a bit of patience and the willingness to coax it back into shape without shame is likely to produce much better long term results while also avoiding the injuries that we can inflict on ourselves when we're in hurry. You can and will get back in shape.
Give your body some time, a lotta love and a lotta work, but in stages. Surprisingly that approach will likely get you back on track a lot faster than becoming your own worst drill sergeant.