Cedars-Sinai Blog

Exercise Caution: Advice for Returning Safely to the Gym

A person resting after exercising

The lighting of the Olympic torch is an inspiring beacon, marking the beginning of the modern incarnation of the games that have existed since 1896.

Coupled with the reopening of gyms and other activities in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, many feel the time is right to slip back into their running shoes or pick up some barbells.

But even Olympians have to start slowly after a long stretch without their usual athletic pursuits—whether from an injury or a global health crisis.

"Whether you're a seasoned athlete or just getting back to your regular routine, a lot of the same rules apply," says Dr. Casey Batten, director of Primary Care Sports Medicine at the Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute.

Dr. Batten worked with Olympic athletes when he was the head team physician at the University of California, Berkeley—mostly for swimming, water polo, crew and rugby. More recently, he covered the U.S. Olympic trials for track and field in Eugene, Oregon.

In his usual practice, since gyms have reopened, he has noticed a spate of torn calves and Achilles tendons, common injuries that can come from returning to exercise. He offers some practical tips for making your return to exercise a safe one.

Start slowly

Don't go back to the gym expecting to lift the same amount of weight or work at the same intensity with cardio. Progress slowly over four to six weeks.

A simple rule is one employed by runners: Start at 50% of what you were doing before, then increase by 10% a week. Apply the same logic to any activity—for example, lifting lighter weights and gradually increasing the weight and number of repetitions.

"A lot of people, including high-level athletes, think they can just go back to their previous level of performance," Dr. Batten says. "You need to give yourself time."

"A lot of people, including high-level athletes, think they can just go back to their previous level of performance. You need to give yourself time."

Don't start with a new activity

After a break from physical activity, ease back into your routine with an old favorite rather than trying to pick up a new exercise.

"Often, new activities make you more prone to injury," he says. "Pick something familiar to start with."

Plan your workout carefully

Resuming a fitness routine isn't the time to skimp on the warm-up and cool-down portions of your exercise session.

The pursuit of fitness goals can be a powerful motivator, and the desire to keep the intensity high through an entire workout can be tempting. Rather than risk an injury that will cause you further fitness setbacks, gradually rev up your cardiovascular system and muscles with leg bends, arm circles, jumping jacks, walking, jogging or other go-to warm-up moves. Help your body return to a resting heart rate and relax your muscles with stretches.

Impatience breeds injury.

Just as your overall return to exercise should be carefully paced, the same approach can be taken with each individual workout. Start slowly, modulate the intensity over time and allow your body plenty of time to recover.

Talk to your doctor first

Many fitness enthusiasts were forced to slow down for over a year. In that time, body changes happen—weight gain, new injuries and recovering from illness can all affect overall fitness. Before resuming an exercise routine, check in with your primary care doctor.

Sprains, strains and stress fractures are the most common exercise injuries, but don't discount a more serious health complication, Dr. Batten says. If you're at risk for cardiovascular issues or have other underlying medical problems, a physical examination is a good idea before resuming a fitness routine.

"Exercise is good for your health, and it's a good idea to check with your doctor when you're returning to activity so you can work together on a fitness plan that makes the most sense for your needs and goals," he says.