Does COVID-19 have a long-term impact on fitness?
Updated 24th February 2022 - for the most up to date coronavirus (COVID-19) guidance and information, please visit the NHS or government’s dedicated pages. This advice may differ in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Millions of Brits have now had the experience of catching COVID-19 and living with the symptoms. The vast majority of people who get COVID-19 recover, however how long it takes to get better will vary from one person to the next. There’s also a lot of variety in symptoms.
According to a report from the British Journal of Sports Medicine from December 2020, one in seven people with COVID-19 have at least one “debilitating” symptom after four weeks. One in 20 have this kind of symptom after eight weeks.
Lots of people who get COVID-19 will only have a fever and a cough, and will feel better within a fortnight. For these people, the virus shouldn’t have any long-term impact on physical health and fitness. It might simply take a few weeks to get back to normal exercise.
For people who have additional symptoms and feel ill for a lot longer, the virus may have long-term implications. It may take many weeks or months to return to normal health and fitness.
The effects of long COVID
If you’re having ongoing symptoms weeks after catching the virus, you may have long COVID.
The symptoms of long COVID include breathlessness, feeling extremely tired, trouble sleeping, chest pains, heart palpitations, dizziness, joint aches, and difficulty with memory and concentration. Read our article on this topic for a full list of symptoms: Long COVID – What is it?
The NHS guidance is that you should speak to your GP if you’ve had COVID-19 and you’re still experiencing worrying symptoms four weeks after you were first infected. If the symptoms are really having an impact on your life, your GP can refer you to a specialist.
Long COVID and fitness
Taking a look at the full list of symptoms for long COVID, it’s easy to see how this condition could have a big impact on fitness in the weeks and months after infection.
- If you’re struggling with breathlessness, you might find it difficult to go for a walk, go up and down the stairs, or carry heavy bags.
- If you’re struggling with fatigue, you might feel completely exhausted after doing minimal activity.
- If you have aches and pains or muscle weakness you might find it difficult or painful to climb the stairs, lift household objects, raise your arms, or even stay standing
- If you have anxiety and low mood you might struggle to get motivated to exercise.
In combination, the symptoms of long COVID can be really challenging. When trying to exercise, you might get tired easily, feel breathless, or feel pain in your joints. You might even lack the motivation to get moving in the first place.
This can be really upsetting, particularly if you’re used to being an active person. The good news is, help is available, so you should always talk to your GP or specialist if you’re struggling. Resources for managing symptoms at home are also available from the NHS site Your COVID Recovery.
Returning to exercise after being ill
Exercising is one of the best things you can do while you’re recovering from COVID-19. Getting active can help with all kinds of symptoms. It can improve strength, give you more energy, and help reduce breathlessness, fatigue, and joint and muscle pain. It will also help you sleep better, and combat anxiety and low mood.
Just remember: you shouldn’t push yourself too hard, or try to exercise in the way you did before you were ill. Instead, work up slowly, exercising regularly for short periods rather than trying to do long bouts.
A daily walk is a really good thing to aim for when you first start exercising again. This has the added benefit of getting you outside in fresh air and sunlight.
If you want to try walking, the NHS recommends the following:
- Always walk with another person when you’re early in your recovery
- Start by doing an uninterrupted walk of five minutes (if you’re able to)
- Build up from five minutes until you can walk for 10 minutes without stopping
- Do two 10-minute walks a day, then build this up to two 15-minute walks
- Progress to a 30-minute uninterrupted walk
Once you can walk for 30 minutes without stopping, you can start to build up your exercise to make it more vigorous.
It’s normal to feel out of breath, warm and sweaty during and after exercise, but if you feel uncomfortable it’s a good idea to take a break to recover. Aches in your muscles after exercising are also normal, but these shouldn’t last for longer than a couple of days.
For more advice on exercising as you recover, consult this guide from the NHS: Getting Moving Again.
Getting back to exercise
Even if you haven’t had the virus, you might’ve found that your fitness has suffered as a result of lockdowns. A lot of us have found it hard to keep up with regular exercise.
If you can, try to find some time in your routine for getting active. It might be as simple as going for a brisk daily walk, trying yoga, or using an online class to do 20 minutes of cardio. The smallest amount of activity each day can make all the difference!