March 6, 2021

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Health & Fitness

Getting back into exercise without hurting yourself

Kelly Athanasopoulos says she was feeling “lethargic and blobby” after a few months of staying home due to COVID-19 restrictions.

“When this all started I didn’t do anything for months,” the 38-year-old mother of three says.

Kelly was playing netball once a week before coronavirus arrived, but then the season was cancelled and with prolonged restrictions in Victoria, she found herself at home a lot.

While it can be hard to exercise regularly at the best of times, this year has seen gyms close or restrict their hours, community sport put on hold, and incidental exercise disappear for those working from home.

“It’s no fault of anyone other than this unfortunate situation we’re in,” says Damian Raper, chair of the Australian Physiotherapy Association’s sports and exercise group.

But if you’ve been inactive for a while, getting moving again can lead to injuries.

Here are some tips from Mr Raper and Meredith Woolsey, an accredited exercise physiologist, to help you get going without hurting yourself.

1. Start slow and gentle, build up gradually

Kelly is wearing a grey T-shirt and holding a netball ball while standing on a netball court.
Kelly Athanasopoulos is a This Girl Can ambassador for netball, but this year’s season was cancelled due to COVID-19, leaving Kelly without her weekly exercise routine.(Supplied: VicHealth This Girl Can)

The most common mistake people make when they start exercising after any amount of time off is to go too hard too soon, Mr Raper says.

Ms Woolsey says not only are you more likely to hurt your body by pushing it too hard, you’re also more likely to get disheartened.

“Not only do they increase [your] chance of injury, but you also inevitably have feelings of guilt and shame and feeling quite terrible about yourself [for failing],” she says.

2. Put a ‘commute’ back into your day

Changes to work and study life mean many of us have lost the routines and incidental exercise we used to get.

Ms Woolsey says you can put those routines back into your day by going for a walk for the same length of time as your usual commute, before and after work.

“Just because you’re at home doesn’t mean your work day has to look too dissimilar to what you would usually be doing,” she says.

“If you normally go for a walk during your lunch break, or if you normally go to the gym, if you’re in a state where gyms are open, then use that time to still go for a walk or drive yourself to the local gym.”

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3. Do exercise you enjoy and set realistic goals

Not everyone likes running, lifting weights or doing push-ups.

If you pick an exercise that you do enjoy, you’re much more likely to stick to it, says Ms Woolsey.

“If exercise is a way to help you with the stress, that’s great. If the thought of going outside and going for a walk fills you with dread and fear, then maybe that’s not for you,” she says.

Whatever activity you pick, it should be achievable for your body right now, with an element of challenge.

So if doing arm exercises with a tin of food is easy, try a bigger tin or doing more reps so it’s a bit of a challenge that your body can build on, for example.

4. Warm up to feel how your body is going

A man lying on the floor of a gym looking exhausted.
If you’re going back to the gym after a break, ease into it so you don’t exhaust yourself or pull any muscles.(Pexels: Shotpot)

Mr Raper says it is best to ease into any exercise routine with a dynamic warm-up that uses movements similar to what you’re about to do.

“Sometimes a warm-up is a great way of realising how you’re feeling,” he says.

“Listen to your body … that might mean the training you had planned to do today might need to be changed or you might need to give your body more time to recover.”

Mr Raper says sometimes you won’t know you’ve gone too hard with your exercise until a few days or weeks later when you start to hurt. So again, take it slow to prevent injuries.

If you’re about to return to a sport after a long time off, make sure your body is prepared by replicating some movements at home, like throwing a ball against a wall to practise catching, for example.

5. Online and app home workouts are not made for everybody

Doing workouts or following a yoga instructor online from the comfort of your loungeroom can be both appealing and beneficial.

Just remember that the instructor has not made this routine taking your abilities, past injuries or conditions into consideration, so be careful with what you try, says Ms Woolsey.

“You need to make sure you’re listening to your body and that you’re doing something that’s appropriate for you.”

A woman doing yoga in a loungeroom with a young child climbing on her.
Sometimes getting the kids involved with your home works can kill two birds with one stone, as it entertains them as well.(Pexels: Ketut Subiyanto)

6. Feeling overwhelmed? You can get help at home

If you need help working out what’s best for you and your circumstances, physiotherapists and exercise physiologists are available in all states for in-person or telehealth consultations.

If you have a medical condition these consultations may be subsidised by Medicare.

7. A simple walk has its benefits

While Kelly can’t get back on the netball court yet, she’s found going for daily walks with a friend is helping her to keep healthy and it brings other benefits.

“The mental health part of walking has been my saviour,” she says.

“It’s been really good to exercise again. Not strenuous, just exercise.

“If it wasn’t for COVID I would never have done this during the week, ever.

“The mental feeling after having gone on a nice long walk and having a chat was just amazing.”

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