The coronavirus crisis upended most Americans’ lifestyles in March – including their exercise routines.
Zipping past pedestrians during a run or lifting weights at the gym right after someone else are things of the past, with socially distanced running routes and at-home workouts becoming more mainstream.
But if you find yourself with extra time on your hands and the sudden urge to channel your coronavirus anxiety into breaking a sweat, make sure you’re doing so safely. Because, yes, there is such a thing as getting too much exercise. And overdoing it could actually do more harm than good, pandemic or otherwise.
What is the right amount of exercise during the coronavirus crisis?
The standard exercise recommendations are simple: Adults should be getting at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity every week (like brisk walking), and do muscle-strengthening activities two days per week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. You can, of course, mix the moderate physical activity with more vigorous exercise like running.
You might logically assume that more exercise is better because you have more time on your hands, but that’s not really the case. Benefits top out at about 300 minutes per week.
“Whatever your regular exercise routine was, I wouldn’t alter it because of COVID-19 per se,” says Linda S. Pescatello, a kinesiology professor at the University of Connecticut.
Chris Travers, an exercise physiologist at Cleveland Clinic Sports Health, points out that any amount of exercise is better than none. Research shows that even a five-minute walk or run is helping improve your cardiovascular system, and that you can do a total body strength program in seven minutes, he says.
Staying Apart, Together:A newsletter about how to cope with the coronavirus pandemic
Quarantined at home and need to move? Here are 10 Instagram Live workouts you can join, for free
How can I tell if I’m exercising too much?
You can experience a host of symptoms when overexercising. These include:
- Loss of appetite
- Muscle soreness and tenderness
- Fatigue (not during, but later)
- Higher pulse (10 or more beats) the day after exercising
- Difficulty concentrating
- Reduced self-esteem
- Weakened immune system
Beyond roughly 300 minutes of working out, you’re probably not gaining much more benefit anyway, says Robert Sallis, co-director of the Sports Medicine Fellowship at Kaiser Permanente.
The overarching rule is to “listen to your body,” Travers says. It’s OK to skip a day if you’re feeling fatigued.
If you’re feeling severe symptoms such as dizziness, chest pain or fainting, seek medical attention.
Am I more susceptible to the new coronavirus if I exercise too much?
It’s still too soon to make any kind of definitive determination.
Though studies aren’t available for COVID-19, we know other viruses are much less likely to affect humans who exercise regularly, Sallis says.
David Nieman, a biology department professor at Appalachian State University, says people shouldn’t even be thinking about overtraining (more than 300 minutes per week) right now.
Existing research data supports the view that overtraining isn’t recommended in parts of the world where COVID-19 transmission risk is high.
“Intense exercise when infected with COVID-19 or other systemic viruses should be avoided,” Nieman says in a review paper coming out in June in the Journal of Sport and Health Science. The U.S. has more than 1 million coronaviruses cases, per Johns Hopkins data.
Now more than ever, though, physical activity is important to strengthen immune function and combat psychological stressors associated with the pandemic.
“Exercise is our best medicine to try to combat those,” Sallis says.
I typically don’t exercise. How can I start safely?
Remember that fitness levels vary person to person. That 150-minute threshold might be too much if you’re starting out, Pescatello says.
Just lacing up your running sneakers won’t turn you into Olympic champion Usain Bolt. In fact, trying a new exercise at a high intensity could prove dangerous.
“You’re not going to improve your physical fitness in a day, but you could hurt yourself in a day,” Travers says. He normally advises patients to walk before they run – literally.
On the flip side: What if your typical exercise routine is gone because of pandemic restrictions? Keep in mind that activities as basic as going for a walk could prove beneficial. Activities like tennis, hiking and bike riding are other socially distanced options to consider for exercise.
You’ll be thankful later. Nieman thinks this epidemic is a wake-up call to the world to reverse trends of obesity and lack of exercise to keep immune systems in solid shape.
“We can do a lot with exercise and leanness to help fend off the virus, or if we get it, to reduce the symptoms and the duration of the symptoms,” Nieman says.
I’ve been training for a race. Should I still run the distance?
You can continue to train for that race you were getting excited about. Alternatively, you can find an event for this fall and start training again.
If you opt to run your distance anyway, see if you can participate in the event virtually if a race is taking that approach. It won’t be the same as you planned, but it’s still a way to achieve that goal.
Remember, though, that running a full marathon can prove a great strain on a body. Nieman recommends people don’t train for a marathon (a 26.2-mile race) until the virus is under control.
So what’s the major takeaway? When it comes to exercise, don’t overdo it, but don’t do nothing. Regular daily exercise gives a boost to immune cells that target viruses when they enter the bloodstream, and exercise will better your mental health, too.
“You don’t really have to do a lot to get these tremendous (exercise) benefits,” Sallis says.