If you took a long break from exercise and are struggling to find your fitness rhythm again, you are not alone. Perhaps you got caught up in a hectic daily schedule, or you got busy with family obligations, or you suffered an injury, or you were forced to stop going to the gym because of the pandemic. But after several weeks or months of not doing your daily workout regimen, you might find it hard to be able to restart the process.
“How you should get back to working out depends on why you took the break in the first place, and how long the break was for,” says Vesna Jacob, Pilates trainer and holistic wellness master based in New Delhi. “If you took time off for personal reasons, it might be easier for you to get back to routine. If it was related to injuries or sickness, then you have to pay attention to what your body is able to do at this point in time.” The good news is that your body has the amazing ability to bounce back and recover strength and stamina that you might have lost, but you have to go about it at a gentle pace to avoid overstraining yourself, and to reduce the risk of injuries. Jacob suggests the following tactics to get back to your usual groove.
1. Don’t start at the place at which you stopped
People who have taken a long break from working out will find themselves unable to do everything that they did before. This is because when you stop working out, you lose the muscle strength and physical fitness you had built over a period of time because of detraining or deconditioning of the muscles. “The worst mistake that people make after taking a break is that they jump right back into what they were doing before they stopped,” says Jacob. “Not only will you overexert yourself to the point of risking injuries, you will also get easily demotivated, because you will think ‘I used to be able to do so much before, and now I can’t do anything at all.’”
Rather than jumping into a routine that you cannot keep with, you should assess where your fitness levels are at this point in time. “Start observing and becoming aware of where you stand in terms of your physical fitness, your stamina, your energy levels, your motivation levels and how adequate your nutrition is,” advises Jacob. “Then as you start becoming more aware, you can adjust and change things accordingly.” This is especially important if you have suffered from an injury or any illnesses.
2. Start gently and slowly
“Don’t start with cardio or high-intensity interval training right away,” says Jacob. “Start slowly with some gentle workouts that can help you figure out what is working for you, and what you are able to do.” The American College of Sports Medicine advises doing 20 to 30 minutes of moderate exercise for three days a week after you have taken a break, starting with 10 minutes if necessary. Moderate exercise could be a quick walk, a light jog or a session of gentle yoga, depending on your fitness level. Jacob advises starting out with a low-impact workout like Pilates, because it is rehabilitative and core-centric, and does not aggravate injuries. To build endurance, you can also try a range of exercises varying in intensity and frequency. Add meditation or pranayama to your routine if you get breathless easily.
3. Set realistic, achievable goals
Even getting yourself to the gym after you have taken a long break can seem daunting, and since you have to start right at the beginning, you can quickly lose motivation. It is possible that you will not see results from your new workout routine right away. Committing to specific, realistic goals that you have to meet will help you to stay motivated. Start small, such as telling yourself that you will commit to walking for three days a week for a month. This will help you get through the rougher patches, and by setting yourself a limit of a small period of time, your goal will seem achievable.
4. Get proper nutrition and hydration
“You have to tackle fitness from all its angles. You cannot get back to being fit without paying attention to your nutrition and hydration,” says Jacob. “Make sure to get enough calories, and drink sufficient water to keep yourself recharged.” According to the American College of Sports Medicine, you need food to help maintain blood glucose concentration during exercise, maximise exercise performance, and improve recovery time. This means loading up on healthy carbohydrates like whole-grain cereals, whole-wheat toast, low-fat yoghurt, whole grain pasta, brown rice, fruits and vegetables. Eat things with protein to help your muscles repair and grow.
Giving yourself a break when you need it is essential for recovery of your muscles. “This means getting adequate amounts of sleep every day,” says Jacob. “Nobody is motivated to exercise constantly. If you’re finding yourself struggling to workout for longer periods of time, take short breaks of ten minutes. Listen to your body and pay attention to what it needs.” Make time for rest days in your schedule, which are also essential for long-term wellness. Choose between active rest days (doing some light activity like stretching or a short walk), which help in muscle repair by improving circulation, and passive rest days (when you don’t do any active movement), which are needed to give your body a complete break.
5. Don't be too hard on yourself
Some setbacks when you start out are completely natural. “Fitness has its ups and downs, and that’s okay,” says Jacob. “Be gentle on yourself. It’s okay if you cannot get back in shape quickly. You need to trust the process and be disciplined.” Don’t do everything all at once, because both your mind and body will get overwhelmed. Find your own motivation to workout, and stick to your routine. You will be able to figure out what is working for you very easily.