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How to start working out again after a long break

The pandemic has upended virtually every aspect of our lives, including our fitness routines. Maybe you’ve, understandably, abandoned yours. You might’ve found working out to synth pop-scored videos alone in your living room a little sad, or simply wanted to prioritize rest during this stressful period. But now, you’re ready to get back into it. How do you return to your fitness routine after a hiatus, so that you avoid hurting not only your body, but your ego, too?

First, remember that everyone stops working out for some reason or another, and try not to beat yourself up about it, Tom Holland, an exercise physiologist and author of The Micro-Workout Plan: Get the Body You Want Without the Gym in 15 Minutes or Less a Day, tells Mic. “Not only does everyone take breaks, but you need breaks.”

If you stopped because you were sick of your routine, you might want to try something new, with the caveat that it might not resonate right away, and that’s totally ok, Holland says. You might need to try a few different modes of exercise before landing on something that fits. Keep an open mind, and remind yourself that you’re just experimenting.

To make the selection process easier, take a moment to reflect on your needs and how to meet them, he adds. Do you need social connection, whether in the form of a partner or class, or are you good working out solo? Do you need one-on-one coaching? “Maybe you need that friend, or three sessions with a personal trainer,” Holland says. Luckily, “that can be online today.”

On the other hand, if you stopped working out due to injury, you need to be extra careful. If your injury hasn’t fully healed, exercise other areas of your body instead, Holland says. If you pulled a muscle lifting, for example, leave it out for a few workouts. Engage in cross-training, that is, a different yet complementary mode of exercise — so if you injured yourself running, try biking, swimming, or the elliptical. “I used to cell clients that injuries were actually an opportunity to come back stronger,” Holland says. “It forces you to work on things you wouldn’t normally do.” Once you think your injury’s healed, rest the affected area for another week, just to be safe.

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Injured or not, Holland recommends starting slowly and letting go of your expectations. “The only goal is to just get that workout in. It doesn’t matter how long or how fast. Leave the metrics behind.” When he goes for a run after taking a break, he leaves his watch at home, or refuses to look at it, because he knows he isn’t running at the same pace he did previously.

Remind yourself that muscle memory is a thing. If you’ve done endurance training for a while, you gain capillary density among many other physical adaptations that don’t completely vanish, Holland explains. In other words, if you were exercising on a regular basis for a prolonged period, you’re not restarting at zero, as if you’d never exercised at all. (That said, generally speaking, strength does tend to return a little faster than cardiovascular fitness.)

The more intense the activity, the more cautious you want to be in order to avoid injury, which will just prolong your hiatus, Holland says. For now, don’t worry about your squat weight or mile pace. Work on regaining your basic strength and cardiovascular fitness first.

If you’re returning to some sort of high intensity interval training (HIIT) routine, start with steady state workouts, jogging at a slow pace or pedaling on a stationary bike, Holland suggests. “Don’t come out with a Tabata workout at an intensity of 10.”

Likewise, if you’re returning to a strength training routine, don’t start with your max deadlift weight, he says. How do you know where to start? That first set will let you know. Lift a little lighter than you used to for 10 reps. If you can easily do all of them them with proper form, go heavier, and if doing the last two or three reps with proper form feels challenging, but you can still pull it off, stick with that weight. If doing the last two or three reps with proper form is next to impossible, go lighter.

If you’re lifting lighter than you did before, try to be Zen and focus on how you’re challenging yourself now, Holland says. If you can muster only 15 pushups when you used to do 25, what matters is you’re still overloading your muscles to make them bigger and stronger. Even if you’re starting at a different fitness level, your body is still changing. Plus, that strength curve will be sharp, Holland says. You’ll probably be back to where you were after a couple sessions.

Regardless of your workout routine, “listen to your body and let those first few easy workouts tell you where your strength and fitness are currently,” Holland says. And, as tempting as it is, don’t compete with other people — “that’s what gets you hurt.”

Basically, be kind to yourself, and trust the process. You’ll be back to your pre-hiatus fitness level before you know it.