Getting Back to Working Out After a Long Break

Vacations. Sickness. Changes in routine. All of these things can affect your workout habits.

COVID-19 lockdown is a perfect example. Pre-vaccines, when restrictions were in place, active people and athletes missed training and time at the gym.

Whether your exercise hiatus is due to COVID-19, an injury, illness, or another upheaval, it can be frustrating. How do you establish an exercise routine again?

First, make sure you are healthy for exercise. If you haven’t seen your doctor lately, make an appointment to discuss your return to exercise.

Next, take a deep breath. You’ve got this! If you had an exercise routine or practice once, you can find it again.

You just need some strategies to help with getting back to working out after a long break.

Strategy #1: Reconnect With Your Motivation

Before you dive back in to exercise, think about what motivates you. And assess if your long break had anything to do with lack of motivation.

If it was injuries or illness that sidelined you, this may not be the case. Your motivation may have been strong all along, but your body needed rest. But if the hiatus had to do with losing inspiration or focus, ask yourself some questions, including:

  • What is my “why” for wanting to exercise?
  • What is the bigger reason I can connect to on days when I don’t want to exercise?
  • What do I hope to get out of exercise?

It’s helpful to find a deeper meaning behind the miles, steps, and reps. Because inevitably, there will be times when you’d rather not have to bother with the gym. But if you’ve done the work to define your motivation, you’ll have something stronger to connect to.

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Strategy #2: Become a Beginner Again

If you haven’t been able to exercise, you may feel frustrated, angry, and resentful.

While those emotions can bring energy, they can also set you up to fail. You may push too hard, too fast. Or you may just give up entirely when you can’t immediately regain your strength or endurance.

Instead, try adopting a beginner’s mindset. This doesn’t mean you are a true beginner. But you are beginning again.

There are many benefits to having a beginner’s mindset.

Beginners are less likely to judge their performance and allow themselves grace. They are more likely to focus on form and fundamentals. And they are more excited by small wins, because they don’t expect everything right away.

Strategy #3: Half-Time Your Exercise

A 2020 Frontiers in Physiology review study looked at “detraining,” as a result of COVID-19. Detraining essentially means losing fitness because of a lack of training.

The research found that highly conditioned people can begin to lose strength and endurance within just a few weeks of inactivity.

“Use it or lose it” actually applies to all of us, though. In fact, we naturally lose 12% to 14% of our muscle strength each decade after age 50. Add in a bout of inactivity, and the increases can be greater.

This is all to say that after an exercise hiatus, you can’t simply pick up where you left off. You have to build back what you lost. Otherwise, you risk injury—and just plain frustration.

A good rule of thumb is to start by doing about half of what you were doing before the break. This means both half the amount of exercise and half the intensity of the exercise.

For example, if you had built up to running for 60 minutes, start back by walking for 30 minutes. Or if you regularly did 45-minute high-intensity cycling classes, try 20 to 30 minutes of low-impact riding.

Begin to increase your effort by about 10% a week. That is, 10% longer and 10% harder. That way, you’re building back your muscle strength and endurance slowly.

Strategy #4: Invest in New Gear

You don’t necessarily need to spend a lot of money to be fit. However, investing in a few key things may help you stick with a routine because it makes exercise safer and more enjoyable.

For example:

  • Good walking or running shoes can help you prevent injuries.
  • Moisture-wicking layers can keep you warm in the winter and cooler in the summer.
  • Reflective vests or other clothing helps drivers see you in the dark.

Fitness trackers, like watches or smart phone apps, can also be a great motivator. A 2020 review study in International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity looked at step-count monitors. The authors found that just tracking numbers of steps made people take more steps.

You might also consider hiring a trainer for a few sessions or buying a multi-class pass at a gym or studio. Novelty and new gear aren’t enough to sustain an exercise routine. But they can help you jumpstart one.

Strategy #5: Vary Your Exercise

If you focused on just one activity before your exercise break, consider adding variety to your new routine.

This can look like many different things:

  • Adding intervals: Instead of 30 minutes of straight jogging at the same heart rate, try periodically increasing your speed during a workout. This could be for intervals of one, two, or three minutes — or even just 30 seconds. These short bursts of extra effort challenge your fitness.
  • Adding strength training: Weak muscles can lead to injury. Plus, we lose muscle mass with age. Add in one or two days of strength training, using weight machines at the gym or dumbbells.
  • Trying a new activity all together: Cross-training helps you avoid injury from repetitive motion. For example, if you’re a biker, try swimming; if you’re a runner, trying biking. Yoga, Pilates, and other core strength classes are always good to add in.

Strategy #6: Put Exercise Back on Your Calendar

You’re more likely to do the activities you’ve purposely scheduled. If you’ve been away from exercise for a while, you’ve likely filled in the time with something else. You need to reclaim blocks of time every week for exercise.

Be smart about how you schedule it, though. If you hate mornings and dread the alarm going off, morning exercise may not be for you. On the other hand, if you know that evenings are far too chaotic, don’t set yourself up to fail.

Find the spaces on your calendar that work, and lock it in. All the better if you can create accountability with a workout buddy or a group.

Strategy #7: Don’t Try to Get Back to Everything at Once

Trying to make too many changes at once is often a recipe for failure. Beware of trying to restart your exercise program while also trying to change your eating, sleeping, or other habits.

Your first goal is to re-establish your exercise routine. Other changes can follow. Focusing on one thing at a time can help set you up for success.

Find Your Way Back to the Gym—Safely. American Heart Association. Link.

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