It’s spring 2021, and lockdown is beginning to ease in the UK. We’re not too far away from everything being back to ‘normal’. Of course, the way we live and work will likely change forever due to this COVID pandemic. But we’re still going to mostly do the things we were doing before and live the way we were living before.
Many of you will have had entirely different lives during lockdown. Now you have the opportunity to go back to doing the things you used to do. Hoorah! Full steam ahead!
Woah! Not so fast. I’m sure you’re keen to make up for lost time. But you could easily further delay your return to normal if you try and change back too quickly.
In this post, we give you some advice on getting back to normal.
If you’ve been sedentary
If you were previously active and you became sedentary – possibly for the whole of the last year – then your body will have changed a lot!
How has your body changed over the past year?
You’ve put on weight.
It’s almost inevitable that you will have gained weight. Even if you’ve stayed the same weight by severely restricting your calories, you’ll have lost muscle and clung on to fat, becoming more ‘skinny fat’. So, your fat to muscle ratio will undoubtedly have increased.
Your cardiovascular system has weakened
Here’s a rundown of some of the changes
- Your heart is not as strong as it was and can’t pump blood with such force now.
- The gas exchange in your lungs and tissues is less efficient than it was.
- You have fewer capillaries supplying your muscles and fat cells.
- You have fewer mitochondria in your muscle cells for helping you to be active.
Your insulin sensitivity and blood sugar control have worsened
It’s very likely that your blood sugar no longer returns to normal after a meal and is constantly high. This condition is often called metabolic syndrome and is a precursor to type 2 diabetes.
It’s also likely that your body does not respond appropriately to maintain normal blood sugar levels when you experience a blood sugar low.
You’ve lost muscle
If you’re past your prime, then your body is in gradual decline. Your body will slowly but surely break down muscle tissue as you get older. But you can arrest or reverse this process with the right choices of exercise. If you don’t exercise at all, you’ll lose muscle. If you’ve gained a lot of weight, you may have gained a little muscle. But the quality of that muscle will be poor. That means you’ll have gained muscle bulk without the strength.
Your posture has worsened
Losing muscle makes it harder for you to maintain good posture. But so does prolonged sitting. If you’ve been working from home ever since the start of the pandemic, then you’ll have been adopting hunched postures a lot more. You may have developed a rounded upper back, tilted pelvis and lower backache.
Your muscles and tendons are less resilient
If you exercise, then your muscles become accustomed to the pull generated by vigorous activity. Your tendons become strong. But if you’re sedentary, they lose that resilience and become more prone to damage.
If you’ve been doing walking or cardio
If you’ve been doing cardio – or at least walking – then you’ve helped yourself avoid a lot of the problems that arise from a sedentary lifestyle.
You’ve lost muscle
If you’ve not been doing strength work too, you’ll have lost muscle. Cardio is endurance-based exercise. It’s going to worsen your muscle to fat ratio. So you’ll head slightly closer to skinny fat by having an exercise habit based purely on cardio.
You’ll have lost strength
If you don’t use it, you lose it. That will apply particularly to upper body strength, but also even to lower body strength. When I did my one and only marathon, I lost a lot of size, strength and power in my legs. Whereas I used to be able to accelerate rapidly on the football field, once I’d trained for the marathon, I only had one speed. I could go forever, but I was unresponsive to changes in pace, so I was easily passed by quick opponents.
You may have developed niggles
When there is very little variety to your exercise habit, the same muscles and tendons get hit time after time. If your chosen activity, such as running, includes impact forces, then all your connective tissues will receive a lot of stress every time you exercise. If you haven’t been rolling, stretching, icing, feeding and recovering, then you may have developed persistent niggles.
If you’ve been doing bodyweight strength work
If you’ve been doing home workouts, you’ll have done a lot to help yourself avoid the problems created by being sedentary. Your cardiovascular system will not be quite as conditioned as if you’d been doing regular cardio, but you’ll have retained more muscle
You may be imbalanced
The main problem with bodyweight strength is that it’s not possible to train some muscles. Your back, biceps, shoulders, hamstrings and, to a large extent, your thighs don’t get enough work from bodyweight training. Your chest, triceps and core get most of the work.
That’s a shame because it can lead to imbalances. And those imbalances are precisely what you don’t want if your posture has also deteriorated. Bodyweight training will tighten your chest and pull down on your spine, curling you over. This will make it more likely that you’ll develop rounded shoulders and a curved upper back.
How to get back to normal
To lose weight
How long did it take you to put the weight on? A year? Then set your expectations that it’ll take a year to take it off. And that’s if you’re driven and consistent.
It’s a lot easier to put weight on than it is to take it off. But most people expect it to come off in a tenth of the time it took to put it on. You can lose weight quickly, but it comes at a cost. If your calorie deficit is too large, you’ll lose a lot of muscle, your testosterone and thyroid output will drop, and you’ll get cranky. Losing muscle is bad news. Muscle is so important. And it helps you lose weight and keep it off, so you should look to hold on to it.
Aim to lose a pound a week. That’s a rate that will help you preserve muscle, especially if you also choose a regular activity that will help you keep it. To lose a pound a week, keep your calorie deficit to around 500 calories. For an average woman, that means 1500 calories a day intake, and for an average man, that means 2000 calories a day intake.
To strengthen your cardiovascular system
I’m sure it goes without saying that you should not attempt to reproduce your previous feats of fitness straight away. If you’re healthy, your body will tell you in very obvious ways that it can’t do what you’re asking it to do. You’ll have to work within your current capability and build back up. Push yourself, but be patient.
If you’re not healthy, you’re at more risk of a cardiovascular ‘event’. Start with brisk walking and get breathless. Build from there.
To restore blood sugar control
If you do something too vigorous when your body can’t cope with it, you’re likely to get a blood sugar low. That can be dangerous. It’ll make you dizzy, possibly confused, and it may take your body a while to restore your blood sugar levels. Take it easy, be patient and build within your capability.
To put back muscle
Any activity that uses your muscles in a way that cannot be sustained will do the trick. Lifting weights, most sports, pilates and yoga are great examples.
If you can keep something going for minutes at a time, then you can assume it’s cardio. It’s endurance exercise. Cardio will not help you build muscle. Cardio will, on the whole, waste you.
You’ll have to build gradually. Remember, your muscles and tendons are more prone to injury after being inactive. So they will fatigue and damage more easily and require longer to recover than trained muscles and tendons. Start with lighter work, and allow longer recovery initially. This may seem frustrating, but it won’t be as disappointing as a long lay off due to injury. Listen to your body, and it’ll thank you for it.
To improve posture
Yoga and pilates are great for posture. If you don’t fancy that, then go and lift some weights and emphasise your upper back and spine muscles, your core and your glutes and hamstrings. Focus your flexibility work on your hips, upper back and ankles.
If you’re not sure how to straighten yourself back up to your former perfect posture, then seek some professional help.
To get rid of niggles
Once everything is open again, you have a lot more choice about which activities you can perform. Do something different that doesn’t challenge the same muscle. If you’ve been running, spend some time on the bike and on lifting weights. Or use a cross trainer and do weights. Avoid activities that are similar to the activities that caused the niggle. For example, don’t start football if you have a running niggle. Choose something that takes away the impact forces.
To restore balance
If your chest has tightened and your spine has started to curve over, get back to the gym and emphasise the opposing muscles. Strengthen the muscles in your upper back that open the chest. Train your posterior chain – do deadlifts. Stretch your chest.
Even if you’ve been doing bodyweight strength, you should treat these exercises as though you haven’t trained for a year. The muscles involved in those exercises will be weak and will lack resilience. Start light, master perfect form and build up.
The perfect blend
If you want to get back to normal and restore optimal physical health, then the best blend would be
- Maintain or begin a cardio habit most days of the week
- Maintain or start a weight lifting regime, 2-3 days per week
- Include mobility, flexibility, posture and muscle and tendon maintenance in your routine. Do a little bit every day plus, say, one or two yoga or Pilates sessions per week.
This combination will optimise your muscle to fat ratio, keep you strong and fit, maintain your muscles, improve your posture and help you stay injury-free. Now that sounds like a plan!
We now have the opportunity to return to a normal, balanced activity regime after the restrictions imposed by the pandemic. But you’ll be out of practice. There will be some aspect of you, your health or your fitness that is not up to the job!
Be body aware, be patient and ease back into your ideal health and fitness routine. Your body will thank you for it. And you’ll reduce the risk of an ‘event’ or an injury that could lay you off for even longer. Enjoy getting back to normal, but be careful!