How Often Should You Work Out During the Pandemic? Doctors Weigh In
Chances are your workout routine has changed a lot since the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic hit. Many of us lost our usual gyms, classes, and workout buddies, and with them, the motivation to work out altogether, while others are prioritizing exercise even more, using it as a way to relieve stress and feel good. Either way, a major shakeup to your fitness routine can leave you feeling like you're back at square one, figuring out what kinds of workouts are feasible in your new schedule and how often you should be doing them.
When we talk about how often or how much we "should" work out, the answer always depends on your goals, your fitness level, the kinds of workouts you're doing, and, of course, the time you have. In other words, it's different for everyone, but there are some key pointers to consider when creating your personal routine. POPSUGAR tapped experts from different fields — a therapist, a sports medicine doctor, and an infectious disease specialist – to talk about the factors you should look at during the coronavirus pandemic so you can create the best fitness schedule for your needs, right now.
Exercise can help to ward off or prevent symptoms of depression and anxiety, both of which you may be experiencing now, said Judy Ho, PhD, clinical and forensic neuropsychologist and host of the SuperCharged Life podcast. "When you work out, you release certain neurotransmitters that help you to feel better, feel good, and to feel more competent," she explained. Finishing a workout, she noted, also gives you a feeling of confidence and accomplishment that can permeate the rest of your day. On top of that, working out promotes mindfulness. "You really just focus in on what's going on in front of you at the present moment," Dr. Ho explained, which can prevent you from catastrophizing or dwelling on anxious thoughts.
Dr. Ho recommended getting in some kind of movement every day to reap these mental health benefits. Work within the limits of your abilities and time constraints, even if it means your daily "workout" is just walking the length of your house a few times or stretching for five minutes. "Just a few minutes, every couple of hours can really do you a lot of good, especially if you're feeling cooped up," Dr. Ho said. "That physical movement helps to freshen up your mind, give you a bit more energy, and help you to develop a different perspective."
In terms of specific workouts, Dr. Ho said cardio can help with stress relief, while resistance training can boost your sense of accomplishment and inner strength. At the end of the day, any type of movement can have positive effects on your mental health, and the more often you do it, the better.
Immune System Health
Emerging research shows that exercise may improve the health of your immune system, an important benefit to think about during a pandemic. One 2019 review concluded that moderate exercise is associated with a decreased risk of illness, and that exercise overall has an anti-inflammatory effect on your body. "There is almost never a downside to a healthy exercise routine," said Anthony Barile, MD, infectious disease medical director at Health First. "A healthy lifestyle with a nutritious diet and regular exercise routine not only helps boost your immune system but also helps you take care of your mental health."
It's worth noting that, according to the same review, unusually intense exercise may actually make you more susceptible to illness. In other words, don't start doing seven high-intensity workouts a week in hopes of reaping major immunity rewards, if that's not what you're used to; it might backfire. Following a routine that's healthy for your whole body, with a good balance of cardio, strength training, and rest days, will be the best course for your immune health. Which brings us to . . .
Injuries keep you from working out, plain and simple, and home workouts can cause them just as easily as those at the gym. Overuse injuries (think: shin splints, tendonitis, runner's knee, stress fractures) are the biggest thing to watch out for, particularly if you're ramping up a workout routine or just starting one, said James Gladstone, MD, chief of sports medicine at the Mount Sinai Health System.
Doing different kinds of workouts (not just the same exercises over and over) and ramping up slowly, depending on your current fitness level, will help to prevent these kinds of injuries, Dr. Gladstone said. He recommended working out three to five times a week with a mixture of workouts (cardio, strength, flexibility) and at least one or two days of rest. Maintaining flexibility is especially important, he explained: "The more flexible you are, the more you can accommodate an extra little twist, a bend that's a little more than you're used to" and that might otherwise lead to an injury.
If you do get injured, stop the activity that's causing pain, stretch if it helps, apply ice, and take pain medication if you're able. If the pain lingers for more than three days, Dr. Gladstone said, see your doctor; most in-person appointments are safe right now, especially if the office is screening people, cleaning their facility regularly, and encouraging patients to wear masks.
How Often Should I Work Out During the Coronavirus Pandemic?
To tie it all together, it's best to do traditional workouts (runs, strength workouts, HIIT sessions, yoga flows) three to five times a week. On your days off, to promote mental and general health (including your immune system), try going for a walk or doing some relaxing yoga. You'll get the benefits of movement seven days a week while steering clear of overuse injuries, a win-win all around. Here's a four-week, no-gym workout plan to help you get started.