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Is It Safe to Exercise If You Have COVID?

Working out is a healthy defense against many illnesses, but once you contract coronavirus, experts don’t know if working out will kill you or make you stronger

So you’re a relatively healthy person who did everything you were told to prevent getting sick — washed your hands, wore a mask, slept well, ate whole foods and exercised regularly — and you still wound up with COVID. The good news is, your symptoms are mild and seemingly under control. The bad news is, you’re going crazy cooped up in quarantine, and as much as your dumbbells are taunting you, you don’t know when it’s safe to workout again. 

Many doctors believe that exercise is medicine and prior to COVID, the general rule among physicians was that if you didn’t have a fever and only had upper respiratory symptoms like a runny nose, then it was safe to sweat out your sickness. “If you’re fever-free and have a runny nose or congestion, exercise may help you feel better,” physician Leann Poston tells me. “If you’re having symptoms of a lower respiratory tract infection such as a cough or shortness of breath, then it’s better that you rest. “ 

When it comes to COVID, people can workout remotely without exposing other people to the virus, but given the growing amount of evidence that even mild cases can cause heart damage — not to mention, the tendency for COVID patients to seem fine one minute and then take dark turns the next — jumping right back into exercise is a precarious move at best. Likewise, the tragic deaths of otherwise young and healthy athletes — like former Florida State basketball player Michael Ojo, a 27-year-old who died of heart complications after recovering from the coronavirus — are shedding light on a troubling reality: The more you worked out before getting sick, the more dangerous it might be to hit the home gym right away. 

This might seem counterintuitive, given the push from public health experts for people to exercise early on in the pandemic as a preventative measure. Specifically, research suggests that working out prior to contracting the coronavirus could help protect people from developing acute respiratory distress syndrome, or ARDS — a deadly complication that has killed approximately 45 percent of the COVID patients who had it. But when we get sick, our bodies tend to experience some inflammation as a result of our immune systems shifting into overdrive. With COVID, that swelling can extend to the heart and result in a condition known as myocarditis, a condition that temporarily weakens the heart and impairs its capacity to pump blood throughout the body (luckily, it usually heals with adequate rest). When people jump too quickly back into exercise while their hearts are still recovering, though, they can experience shortness of breath, irregular heart beats and even fatal complications such as cardiac arrest. 

More importantly, athletes and people who do a lot of high-intensity training are already prone to having swole hearts to begin with, making them more at risk for complications from myocarditis. This explains why up to 16 percent of cardiac arrests that take place in public happen at the gym, and why a growing number of doctors recommend additional cardiovascular testing for athletes, like electrocardiograms and MRIs, before returning to their previous levels of physical activity once they’ve recovered from the coronavirus. 

As for what that means for the average guy who works out a lot, like most things coronavirus-related, experts don’t really know, and the longer the pandemic goes on, there seem to be more questions than answers. That said, doctors are pretty sure that being sedentary isn’t the answer either, and comes with its own risks. 

“Even if you feel bad, try to get up and walk around periodically to decrease your risk of blood clots,” Poston says, acknowledging that since there’s such a wide range of COVID symptoms people can experience, it’s hard to paint in broad strokes. “As always, contact your doctor with any questions on what’s best in your situation.”

Physician’s assistant Ben Tanner agrees that every case is different, but believes the average person can engage in light exercise with mild COVID, as long as they don’t have a fever and listen to their bodies. “For the vast majority of people who get mild cases, it’s fine to do some exercise,” Tanner says, adding that it doesn’t matter if it’s aerobic or strength training, as long as you take it easy at first. “Either way, you should start really light and gradually increase intensity, so if it starts to feel like too much you can back off a little bit.”

The bottom line is, if you want to make sure your heart has recovered enough to work out again, it’s best to consult with your doctor, especially if you have a history of cardiovascular issues. But when it comes to working out with COVID, make sure your jacked heart has the rest days it needs, just like the rest of your body. No one should be dying to get back into the gym.