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Returning to the gym? Make a plan but avoid setting a personal best

Start slow

Even slower than you think. As gyms reopen, the natural question everyone wants to know is: “How fast can I get back to my pre-pandemic fitness level?” The answer is: Around one to two months, but it depends how fit you used to be and how active you stayed during lockdown.

If you haven’t done any exercise these last several months, set a goal to work out three times maximum in the first week back, then focus on rebuilding a training routine in the following weeks. “The idea of week one might be to get to the end of the week feeling like, ‘I wish I’d done more’,” says Jason Gardner, a Melbourne-based accredited exercise physiologist.

Even if you’ve diligently exercised outside every day during lockdown, your first few weeks back in the “real” gym is not the time to set new personal bests. If you’re a weightlifter, leave your ego at the door and lift half what you used to in the first week back. A similar guideline applies to cardio workouts too.

“Go at 50 per cent [in the first week]. If that goes all right, 70 per cent the week following, then if that feels good, 80-85 per cent the weeks after,” suggests Gardner. “At that stage you’ll be getting a decent workout.”

Make time for recovery

You’re going to be sore both during and after those first few workouts – sore in parts of your body you forgot existed. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as there’s some truth to the old saying “no pain, no gain”.

“If you avoid any discomfort whatsoever, you’re not challenging your body to adapt,” says Gardner, adding that there’s a fine line between good pain that’s a sign of growth and bad pain. “For me, ‘bad sore’ means it’s impacting on your ability to do what you need to do during the day.”

See a healthcare professional if you’re troubled by sharp or persistent niggles, and take time to recover between workouts to lower your risk of injury. A busted knee or shoulder is not how you want to finish 2020.

Rediscover what works for you

Before the pandemic (remember that?), the lunchtime classes at my gym were usually pretty quiet – but now they’re some of the busiest, because members who live nearby are working from home. Take advantage of the new world order to build a fitness schedule that suits your workday. A colleague has swapped her hour-long commute to the office with a daily walk, a habit she intends to keep in our work-from-home future.

If you used to have to force yourself to get to the gym, consider finding a new way to exercise: consult an exercise physiologist or personal trainer for advice, join a group fitness club or an outdoor-training group, swim some laps in the pool, try bodyweight training.

Don’t forget: the pandemic hasn’t ended

Just because you’re back in the gym doesn’t mean the world has gone back to normal. Exercise etiquette is now more important than ever: doing dumbbell curls in someone else’s personal space or not wiping your sweat off a bench was rude before the pandemic, and now it’s potentially dangerous.

And don’t expect the gym to be exactly how you remember. It’s likely you’ll struggle to find a place in your favourite group fitness class, because the number of people permitted to attend is capped. You might be made to disinfect every single thing you touch, or queue to enter the gym while everyone has their temperatures checked, or even wear a mask. Some of your go-to equipment won’t be available anymore because it’s not sanitary. These changes are annoying – but they’re annoying for gym workers too, so don’t take your frustration out on them.

Go easy on yourself

This is the most important thing. Don’t be discouraged if it takes a long time to get back to where you were, and resist the urge to work out for hours every day to “catch up” on lost workouts.

“Punishing yourself at the gym is not a healthy response,” says Gardner, suggesting a different way of looking at the end of lockdown: “We’ve been afforded the opportunity to start looking after ourselves again with [exercise] we enjoy.” (He’s personally excited to venture beyond his 5km bubble to resume cycling in the Dandenongs, and kite surfing.)

If you don’t even feel ready to start exercising again yet, that’s fine too. 2020 has been an incredibly stressful year, and none of us need the added pressure of shedding “COVID kilos.”

Get a little more outta life

Start your week with practical tips and expert advice to help you make the most of your personal health, relationships, fitness and nutrition. Sign up to our Live Well newsletter sent every Monday, here for The Sydney Morning Herald, here for The Age, here for Brisbane Times and here for WAtoday.

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