How to Return to Activity Safely

Since the start of the pandemic, many individuals have been home, have been less active, and children have not had sports or even recess.   As we are able to transition to more normal activities, there may be a desire to return to sports, workouts, and recreational activities to help shed those pandemic pounds.  This can pose a risk of injury if done too quickly under the wrong circumstances.

Physical therapists often see injuries in people doing too much too fast.  For instance, when someone who has been mostly sedentary takes up a running program without the conditioning first or using a slow progression toward distance running, painful injuries can occur such as plantar fasciitis, knee pain, shin splints, low back pain, or worse, such as stress fractures.  It is also common to see individuals go from a sedentary winter to trying to do the vigorous spring yard cleanup resulting in a back strain.  Even for youth athletes, pre-season conditioning, summer camps, and individual workouts are extremely important to prevent injuries in competitive play.

The body’s tissues are constantly changing and adapting to daily activity.  If the muscles are used throughout the day with movement, they stay loose and strong.  If we are stuck at a computer all day, they tighten and weaken.  Several months of being more sedentary can undo years of activity.

Guidelines to return to exercise or increased activity after a period of being sedentary should include the following: If you previously had a normal exercise routine, return to similar exercises, but cut everything in half.  Do half of the weight or resistance, or half of the time.  Consider performing the exercises every other day instead of every day.  If this is too easy and you have no difficulty, then the following week increase the program to 75% of what you previously had done.  You want to find a starting level where you feel fatigued after exercise but you recover within a few hours.  Once you have that level, increase the intensity of your workout no more than 10-25% each week and proceed with caution.  If you walk 1 mile for a week, consider an increase to up to 1.25 miles the next week.  If you were using 10 lbs. weights for arm exercises, try up to 12 lbs. the next week. Exercise should be fatiguing but not painful.

Physical Therapists not only specialize in treating movement dysfunctions and post-operative conditions, but also preventative treatments.  If you are increasing your activities and having discomfort that lasts much more than a couple days, you should consider seeing a physical therapist for an assessment.  A little guidance and treatment early on will be much less expensive than a surgery or recovering from a major injury.

The State of Illinois allows direct access to physical therapy, and everyone has the right to choose where they go for physical therapy.  This means a doctor’s prescription is not required and you can always call and make an appointment with a physical therapist first for those preventative measures or persistent aches and pains.  Physical therapists are extensively trained in recognizing abnormalities that may warrant a doctor visit or further testing, and will refer you appropriately if indicated.

So as we anxiously await returning to our normal lifestyle, choose to move…but choose to move safely!



Authored by Todd Vanatta, PT, MPT, OCS, CFMT and Ken Olson, PT, DHSc, OCS with Northern Rehab Physical Therapy Specialists